Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Perjury charges dropped against police officers

Court case ends after cop's death

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Justice officials have dropped a high-profile criminal case against two Winnipeg police officers -- one whose career has likely been saved by the move and one who recently died in an off-duty accident.

Constables Jess Zebrun and Peter O'Kane were cleared of perjury in a controversial February 2011 decision, which the Manitoba Court of Appeal overturned this fall.

Prosecutor Robert Tapper said at the time he looked forward to the courtroom rematch. But much has changed. O'Kane fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a fatal brain injury while at a friend's house last month. And Zebrun learned last week he will no longer face prosecution following the sudden death of his former partner.

"This was a tragic and somewhat obscene end to a somewhat tortured case," Tapper told the Free Press on Wednesday. He has formally entered a stay of proceedings in the case.

Tapper said it would have been difficult, but not impossible, to go to trial against Zebrun alone considering both officers were linked to the serious allegations.

"The moment I heard (O'Kane) was dead, I knew what I was going to do," said Tapper. "It led me to a conclusion that I had absolutely no problem with exercising my prosecutorial discretion and entering a stay."

Tapper said he was personally stung by O'Kane's death because he knew him long before they locked horns in court. Tapper is a well-known boxing judge in Canada and O'Kane was once a talented fighter who achieved success in the ring.

"I always had a grudging respect and admiration for Peter," said Tapper. Still, the private lawyer turned special prosecutor said he was confident of a legal victory in court.

"Do I think the accused were guilty? Of course. Do I think I would have got convictions against them? Yes," said Tapper.

Zebrun's lawyer, Hymie Weinstein, said his client was relieved by the stay but confident he would have cleared his name at trial. Zebrun is the stepson of former Winnipeg police chief Jack Ewatski.

O'Kane and Zebrun had originally walked free on a technicality after their lawyers successfully filed a motion for a dismissal of the case, saying Tapper failed to have any of his witnesses properly identify the two accused in court. It was surprising, considering there appeared to be no dispute the two men sitting in court were the same O'Kane and Zebrun.

The case was heard by the Court of Appeal in late 2011. In a decision released in September, the high court said the judge was wrong to dismiss the charges. The acquittal was overturned and a new trial was ordered. It was set to be held next fall.

It was alleged they improperly searched a downtown hotel room and seized nearly a kilogram of cocaine and $18,000 cash in 2005. The Crown stayed drug-trafficking charges against the suspect and an accomplice when questions were raised at a preliminary hearing about the validity of a police search warrant. O'Kane and Zebrun were arrested in January 2008.

O'Kane and Zebrun were alleged to have lied to a magistrate to obtain a search warrant, which they used to enter a room at the Fairmont hotel.

When they testified at the accused drug dealer's preliminary hearing, O'Kane and Zebrun claimed their suspicions about the hotel room weren't based on an illegal sneak-and-peek, but rather on the information of a mysterious informant. The pair told a judge they never entered the room at the Fairmont until after they obtained a warrant. They gave different accounts of when they first went to the hotel.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2012 A7


Updated on Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 9:42 AM CST: Replaces photo

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