The not-guilty verdict in the case of former East St. Paul police chief Harry Bakema has raised several issues about the judiciary, as well as confounding those who were anticipating a different judgment in the face of what seemed on the surface an open and shut case.
Mr. Bakema was accused of several offences in allegedly sabotaging the evidence that might have convicted a Winnipeg police officer in the death of Crystal Taman in 2005. The case led to a public inquiry, which found police had closed ranks to protect a fellow officer, but it also led to an investigation and criminal charges against the disgraced former chief.
Provincial court Judge Kelly Moar, who acquitted Mr. Bakema 18 months after the trial ended, decided there was a reasonable doubt about every piece of key evidence introduced by the Crown.
The principle of reasonable doubt, however, does not mean a defendant must be found guilty beyond any doubt, but merely that the judge or jury must be sure.
Some observers believe Judge Moar had more than enough evidence to convict the former police chief of criminal wrongdoing, particularly when several key witnesses were police officers and other professionals.
It's been suggested the judge put too much weight on the fact Mr. Bakema was a police officer, and entitled to a higher benefit of the doubt than would be shown other defendants in similar circumstances. In fact, there was nothing about police behaviour in this entire case that encourages confidence in that idea.
Given these concerns and public cynicism in general, Judge Moar's verdict must be appealed and tested in the Manitoba Court of Appeal.
A separate issue was the 18-month delay in delivering the oral judgment, which is not unprecedented, but a serious concern because of the strain such delays put on victims, defendants and the pursuit of justice. Jurists are fond of saying that delaying justice is the same as denying justice.
Judge Moar, appointed to the bench in 2005, said his verdict was delayed because the case was extremely complex and he found it necessary to examine and re-examine all the evidence heard at trial.
With respect, many criminal trials today are equally or more complex, yet judgments are still delivered in a reasonable period of time.
Manitoba judges have complained in the past they are overworked and that heavy case loads are responsible for clogged courts and delays in justice. If workload was the problem in the Bakema case, however, then Judge Moar should have spelled it out.
The Canadian Judicial Council says judges should deliver their verdicts within six months of the trial's completion, but there is no effective mechanism for either accountability or enforcement.
The idea of threatening a judge with sanctions when verdicts are delayed is also a risky notion, since it could lead to rushed or sloppy justice.
Still, the chief justice should intervene when a verdict has been delayed inordinately to determine the cause and consider how the case might be expedited.
Victims and defendants should also have the ability to seek answers from the chief justice when a case has dragged on too long.
The independence of the judiciary is a bedrock principle of the British judicial system, but there has to be more room for accountability and transparency.
If more judges are needed, then hire them, or create a pool of retired judges who can be called upon when the dockets are overloaded. The Bakema case has tested -- once again in the Taman affair -- the public's confidence in the judicial system, but cynicism is not a healthy emotion. The verdict took too long, but it is not necessarily the last word on what has been a long and painful journey.