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The jury has spoken; now they're sworn to secrecy

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I never expected Shaun Nodrick to be able to walk out of a Winnipeg courtroom this week as a completely free man.

But that’s exactly what happened after a jury cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing Monday night in the mysterious death of a former minister.

Despite admitting to robbing the victim, removing his clothes and abandoning him in a sunflower field north of the city, Nodrick will face absolutely no legal consequences for his actions.

And we will never fully know why.

That’s because in Canada, the six men and six women who decided his fate are forbidden by law from uttering a single word about their deliberations.

As much as we might want to find out what was their reasoning for giving Nodrick a free pass, they must take that information to their graves.

It’s much different in the United States, of course, where jurors often grant interviews to explain what went on behind closed doors. It often leads to fascinating insight into the pressures jurors face to conform with the majority and how various pieces of evidence and arguments were interpreted.

In this country, lawmakers apparently believe that lifting the veil of secrecy from jury deliberations would somehow compromise the integrity of the justice system. I actually think it would do the opposite, by making the system more transparent and accountable.

Many lawyers and even judges I’ve spoken to privately have told me the same thing. They feel they might actually be able to learn a lot if jurors were able to speak candidly and openly after the fact. And they note that judges are required to give detailed reasoning and explanations for their verdict. Yet with a jury, all we ask of them is to simply tell us "guilty" or "not guilty."

After sitting through a good chunk of the trial, I figured the jury would likely have a difficult time finding Nodrick guilty of second-degree murder. But I would have placed bets on them coming back with a verdict on manslaughter, which speaks more to a negligent act rather than a deliberate one.

Amazingly, they took only a few hours to acquit him entirely.

"They clearly said he never caused his death," defence lawyer Mark Wasyliw told me Monday night outside court. "It's a common-sense position, given the evidence."

Was it really?

Unlike most homicide victims, Mahatoo wasn't shot, stabbed or beaten. An autopsy revealed the 65-year-old former Presbyterian minister died in July 2003 from exposure and complications from diabetes. His nearly naked body was found on a strip of farmland eight days after he was abandoned there. Doctors can't say exactly when he died.

Nodrick, 32, began his trial on a first-degree murder charge, but Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Brenda Keyser tossed that charge last week, saying it wasn't supported by any evidence of forcible confinement. But jurors were given the option of still finding him culpable for homicide.

Nodrick didn't deny driving Mahatoo to an isolated field near the Bel Acres Golf and Country Club, removing Mahatoo's shoes, shirt and pants and leaving him to fend for himself after stealing his car and bank card. He claimed Mahatoo had made sexual advances to him and told investigators he stripped him of his clothing and left him in the field in an attempt to "humiliate" him.

But Nodrick said he never planned to kill Mahatoo, who he met while both men were staying in the chemical-withdrawal unit at the Health Sciences Centre in the spring of 2003.

"This was a tragic accident. Nobody could foresee this," Wasyliw told jurors in his closing argument earlier this week. "Leaving him on that farm site didn't cause his death. It was Mr. Mahatoo not leaving the site that became fatal. It's a decision (Nodrick) had no part in."

Wasyliw questioned why Mahatoo didn't walk to a farmhouse less than a kilometre away, or a golf course that was about the same distance, or a major highway that was nearby. Wasyliw also suggested Mahatoo may have opted not to seek help, considering he had been suffering from depression, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts in the weeks before his death.

Crown attorney Brian Wilford suggested that Mahatoo was too frail to seek help, and that Nodrick should be held accountable for leaving him in a situation for which he could not escape.

Jurors clearly rejected that argument, essentially finding that Nodrick played absolutely no part in his death.

What about you? How would you have ruled if you were asked to sit on this jury? And do you think it’s time Canada looked at changing the system so we can get answers to the question of "what were they thinking?"

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