A Manitoba judge under federal review for comments he made about a rape victim has been removed from a manslaughter jury trial just as it's set to begin.
Queen's Bench Justice Robert Dewar was to preside over the case beginning Monday. Sources told the Free Press a last-minute decision was made this week to have Justice Doug Abra take over the proceedings.
Provincial officials have offered no explanation for the move, which comes days after Chief Justice Glenn Joyal issued a written statement saying Dewar will not hear any cases "of a sexual nature" pending the ongoing investigation.
"This is really unusual, to have a judge switched after jury selection and so close to the start of the trial," a source told the Free Press. In fact, jurors selected to hear the case had already been instructed Dewar was presiding to avoid any potential conflicts in case they knew him. Now the same process will likely have to be repeated with Abra.
Sources speculated there may be concern by justice officials about the volume of publicity currently surrounding Dewar and a decision was made to go with a lower-profile judge in a homicide case where 12 citizens will decide the fate of the accused.
The case against Matt Wegier involves the November 2007 stabbing death of 24-year-old Jeff Engen inside the Empire Cabaret on Main Street.
A judicial spokesman told the Free Press Joyal's notice from earlier this week is accurate and Dewar will continue hearing cases of a non-sexual nature. No further information about the reasons for moving him off the Wegier case was provided.
"There are a number of reasons why a case may be reassigned at any given stage," said the spokesman. Although that's true, sources say it usually only applies in cases where a sudden health issue comes up. That's apparently not the case with Dewar, who has been in courtrooms all this week, including Thursday.
Last week, the province announced it is filing a complaint with the Canadian Judicial Council over remarks made by Dewar at a sexual assault sentencing in Thompson. Jennifer Howard, minister responsible for the status of women, said she is concerned the judge's comments will cause future victims to fear they will be blamed for attacks against them.
At a sentencing hearing Feb. 18, Dewar suggested a victim's attire and flirtatious behaviour were partly to blame for the attack, which involved forced intercourse. The judge called the attacker, Kenneth Rhodes, a "clumsy Don Juan" and noted the victim wore a tube top, high heels and plenty of makeup. He gave Rhodes a conditional sentence SEmD no jail time -- of two years, rejecting a Crown suggestion of at least three years behind bars.
The judge's remarks unleashed a firestorm of protest last week when they came to light in a Free Press story. Politicians of all stripes joined student and feminist groups and those who work with sexual assault victims in decrying the comments. Many said they feared Dewar's remarks would deter other victims from coming forward in the future.
By Friday afternoon, the judicial council, which has authority over more than 1,100 federally appointed judges, had already received "several" complaints about Dewar's handling of the case, according to a spokeswoman.
Earlier in the day, more than 100 women and men held a noisy protest outside the downtown Law Courts building. They chanted "yes means yes and no means no," and waved signs sporting an array of messages including, "Clumsy, ignorant judge," and 'FYI, Dewar, this is the 21st century." Many who attended the demonstration called on the judge to apologize for his remarks and to resign.
A spokeswoman for the Manitoba Justice Department said the Crown has ordered a transcript of the Rhodes sentencing and will review whether there are grounds for appeal. It has 30 days to do that.