A Winnipeg jury has brought closure to a mystery that has haunted local residents for more than 26 years — Mark Grant killed Candace Derksen.
Grant, 47, was convicted Friday evening of second-degree murder for a crime many believed would never be solved. The 13-year-old girl was grabbed off the street Nov. 30, 1984 while walking home from school, bound with rope and left to freeze to death inside a brickyard shed. Her body was found in the shed Jan. 17, 1985, following an exhaustive search that included hundreds of volunteers.
Jurors spent three days weighing the evidence case Grant, which largely consisted of DNA evidence that finally cracked the case in 2007. Grant is a notorious convicted sex offender who has spent much of his adult life in prison, although jurors had no idea about his previous criminal record because he never testified in his own defence and the Crown wasn’t allowed to present evidence of bad character.
At least one female juror was in tears as the unanimous verdict was delivered. Grant showed no obvious reaction to the verdict. Family and friends of Candace embraced each other and several police officers who were involved in the high-profile investigation and who had rushed downtown on a cold winter’s night to catch the verdict.
Outside court, an emotional Cliff and Wilma Derksen said they often wondered whether their journey for justice would ever end.
"I think the jury was tremendously courageous," said Wilma, wiping her eyes while clutching a fresh white rose in her hands. She plans to lay the flower at Candace’s headstone in a private family service Saturday morning.
"It’s a symbol of innocence, purity, love and fresh beginnings," she said. "The way this story has come together has completed us."
Cliff was quick to thank police officers who were determined to solve the case, and the Crown prosecutors who made a convincing case to the jury. The family was not at all disappointed jurors found Grant not guilty of the original charge of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Grant will be sentenced at a later date and faces a life term with at least 10 years behind bars. The Crown could seek to have it raised. Grant is expected to file an appeal based on a series of pre-trial issues and rulings. He has 30 days to do so. Grant’s sentencing has been adjourned to a future date. He remains in custody.
David Wiebe was one of the last people to see Candace alive, his final memory of her a playful snowball fight they had together outside the school they both attended. He was once viewed as a suspect in the case and attended every second of the trial, sitting with the Derksen family.
"This has been an incredibly freeing experience," he said outside court. "The whole process has been extremely healing."
Deliberations began Wednesday afternoon as jurors faced a difficult task in weighing four weeks of conflicting evidence. All 12 jurors had to agree on Grant’s fate or else the result would be a hung jury and mistrial. The Crown would then have the option of putting Grant on trial a second time at a future date.
The reliability of the DNA evidence was very much a live issue, as evident by the vastly different closing arguments from Crown and defence lawyers.
Grant’s lawyer, Saul Simmonds, attacked the Crown’s case by accusing them of using "bad science" to try to solve the high-profile mystery. He said police ignored certain evidence that pointed away from Grant, contaminated the original crime scene and mishandled key exhibits such as the twine used to tie up Candace Derksen.
"This is a case with overwhelming doubt.," said Simmonds, who suggested the real killer has never been caught.
Crown attorney Brian Bell told jurors their job is relatively simple if they ignore the "red herrings" being thrown their way. He said DNA evidence clearly connects Grant to the slaying, with only a one-in-50-million chance the genetic profile is from someone else. He said there is no reasonable explanation of how Grant’s DNA could be at the crime scene if he didn’t commit the crime.
"Please don’t speculate on things you don’t know, focus on what you do know," said Bell.
Three pubic hairs were found on or near Candace’s body, although police have said she wasn’t sexually assaulted. Four scalp hairs that appeared to have been lightly bleached near the roots were on Candace’s clothing. There is evidence Grant had dyed his hair around the same time, and his profile couldn’t be excluded.
As well, DNA extracted from the twine was found to be a maternal match to Grant. All of his siblings were later excluded as the donor.
Simmonds called an expert witness last week who discredited some of the DNA findings used against his client.
"Your responsibility is to protect him from a possible wrongful conviction. He is not the person who did this. His future now rests in your hands," Simmonds said in his final argument.
"He hog-tied Candace Derksen and left her to die. You’ll come to one conclusion and one conclusion only," Bell later said in reply.