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The second-degree murder trial in the death of 13-year-old Candace Derksen took a trip down the rabbit hole of DNA analysis Thursday as the accused killer's defence team drew several comparisons to Alice in Wonderland.
Amarjit Chahal, the lab director who reviewed the DNA tests Winnipeg police ultimately used to link Grant to the murder, was repeatedly likened to the Mad Hatter as Mark Grant's defence lawyer presented his final arguments in front of Court of Queen's Bench Justice Karen Simonsen.
The judge will have to decide at a later date whether Mark Grant, 53, is guilty of second-degree murder in Candace's death. He is being tried for the second time after his 2011 second-degree murder conviction was overturned.
After a six-week trial that centred on DNA evidence, defence lawyer Saul Simmonds attacked the credibility of Crown witnesses in his closing arguments, especially Chahal, whom he described as "mad as a hatter." Grant's defence team has argued he could have been excluded as a suspect if the DNA analysis at Chahal's lab had been done properly.
"Part of the problem is, Dr. Chahal — again, with the greatest of respect, mad as a hatter — chooses a process that is so factually and scientifically dangerous. How many other people has he done this to?" Simmonds said. "We’re supposed to be talking about reliable evidence for a court to take into consideration. And the fact that he could put an innocent man in jail based upon his interpretation is completely lost in this process."
"He follows the Mad Hatter's protocols from beginning to end" and interprets the DNA evidence however he wants, even if "it's scientifically corrupt," Simmonds told the court.
Simmonds emphasized testimony from two internationally recognized DNA experts called to the stand by the defence who raised questions about the scientific value of Chahal's analysis done at the Molecular World lab, based in Thunder Bay.
Bruce Budowle, a professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center and former senior scientist for the FBI, testified for the defence the lab had misinterpreted its own data. He called its analysis "scientifically corrupt." Frederick Bieber, a Regina-born geneticist and Harvard University professor, referred to the DNA results as "fatally flawed."
"Is he intellectually dishonest? Scientifically dishonest? Is he making it up as he goes along? I have no idea," Simmonds said, adding he doesn't know how the court can have "any confidence" in Chahal's testimony. He referred to parts of it as "Trumpian," suggesting Chahal had misled the court by not giving straight answers about how he reached his conclusions in the lab. Under cross-examination by Simmonds during the trial, Chahal conceded if his analysis of the DNA was wrong, Grant could be excluded as a suspect.
Simmonds quoted repeatedly from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland during his closing arguments. Crown prosecutors are set to deliver their final arguments today.
Simmonds told the judge the Crown's case tries to lead the court "down a rabbit hole" without credible evidence tying Grant to Candace's death.
"We're not in trial by innuendo," he said.
Simmonds suggested there is no direct evidence tying Grant to the crime scene and emphasized Grant maintained his innocence throughout a videotaped police interview after his arrest a decade ago, in which he told police their DNA evidence could be wrong and they were "barking up the wrong tree." Simmonds was heavily critical of a Crown witness who testified she heard Grant give a joking confession to the murder back in 1988. Tonia Lachance, who was then a friend of Grant's girlfriend, said she heard Grant say "I killed her" during a group discussion about Candace.
A couple of seconds later he added, "No, I didn't. I'm just kidding," she said on the stand. Lachance said Grant later threatened her not to tell anyone about the remark and she didn't speak to the police about it for 19 years. Simmons urged the judge not to believe her testimony, calling her an "evasive" and "difficult" witness.
"I caution the court, and I say this respectfully, of being dragged into the rabbit hole the Crown is trying to ask the court to go down. This is a case in which there is virtually no real evidence of any kind that Mark Grant has done anything," Simmonds said.
The retrial was called after the Manitoba Court of Appeal, and later the Supreme Court of Canada, overturned Grant’s 2011 second-degree murder conviction. The high court decided the trial judge erred by not allowing the jury to hear evidence that could have pointed to another suspect.
During this trial, which began in January, the defence introduced evidence about a second kidnapping victim who had been reportedly abducted when she was 12 years old. The alleged victim was found four months earlier tied up in a rail boxcar in the same area where Candace’s body and was reported to have happened while Grant was in custody. The Crown has argued the victim, now an adult woman who testified during the retrial, is not believable.
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Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, May 11, 2017 at 5:38 PM CDT: Full edit
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