Sandeson murder case almost derailed over mistrial | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Sandeson murder case almost derailed over mistrial

Defence lawyers unsuccessfully argued private investigator’s actions were cause to throw out Dalhousie student’s murder trial.

click to enlarge Sandeson murder case almost derailed over mistrial
Nova Scotia Courts
A Halifax Regional Police officer took this photo of William Sandeson moments after he was charged with murder.

The first-degree murder trial of medical student William Sandeson was almost thrown out by the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia six weeks into proceedings.

Sandeson is accused of murdering 22-year-old Taylor Samson during a drug deal involving 20-pounds of marijuana the night of August 15, 2015. Samson’s body has yet to be found.

The Crown and defence finished their final arguments earlier this week and the jury is deliberating.

But halfway through the trial, during hours of voir dire hearings away from the jury, Justice Josh Arnold and the two teams of lawyers tried to untangle a legal mess caused by private investigator Bruce Webb.

The jury isn’t present for voir dire hearings, and media are not allowed to report on them when a publication ban is in effect. Now that the jury is sequestered, the saga can be made public.

The defence hired Webb to interview key witnesses back in October 2016. In court, they accused their former employee of going to police with confidential information in what the defence called a breach of solicitor-client privilege and grounds for a mistrial.

Webb, a retired police officer with decades of experience who works for Martin and Associates Investigations Inc., was instructed to “lean on” the witnesses so the defence could get more information. He might have leaned too hard.

While interviewing eyewitnesses Justin Blades and Pookiel McCabe, Webb discovered a different version of events from what the two told police months earlier.

Blades told Webb he was drinking and smoking in McCabe’s apartment, across the hall from where Sandeson lived. The three were friends, and involved with the track-and-field team at Dalhousie.

The two students say they heard a gunshot from across the hall the night Samson was allegedly killed, and minutes later looked inside Sandeson’s apartment. In court, both witnesses testified they saw a body covered in blood.

But those details weren’t a part of the original statements made by Blades and McCabe to Halifax Police. The witnesses told Webb they were scared Sandeson was connected to the Hell’s Angels and lied out of fears for their own safety. Webb testified in court he told the young men that Sandeson being connected to organized crime was nearly impossible.

Webb pushed Blades to give another statement to police after hearing what he had withheld, and suggested to HRP that investigators re-interview McCabe. He even facilitated a meeting between police and Blades, which Sandeson’s defence team held up as a possible breach of solicitor–client privilege.

The private investigator had been present for confidential meetings with defence lawyers, and had signed a confidentiality agreement with the firm.

Because of Webb’s intervention, and the new police statements that followed, the witnesses gave testimonies in front of the jury which defence lawyer Eugene Tan said could be “damning.”

Out of sight from the jury, the defence argued that this evidence was tainted by Webb’s intervention. His going to police breached either solicitor-client or litigation privilege, they said, and should result in a mandate for a mistrial or the evidence being excluded from trial. The latter would be a complex solution, considering the jury had already heard the statements and the testimonies were widely reported on by the media.

Tan and his team also argued the Crown’s obligation to disclose evidence wasn’t followed. The defence wasn’t informed of their private investigator’s actions until about half-way through the trial. The lawyers said this didn’t give the defence a chance to argue the admissibility of the evidence presented by Blades and McCabe.

The Crown countered that the statements Blades gave to police about a bloody body were disclosed. In them, Blades mentions a “Bruce” four times. The defence should have done better due diligence in seeing whether their investigator had been in touch with police, Crown prosecutors argued.

The defence applied for a mistrial, regardless. Arnold came back several days later and ruled the application was denied. The Justice told the court he had reviewed a “myriad of cases” that dealt with similar issues in the past and concluded carrying on with the trial would not constitute a “miscarriage of justice.”

Arnold told the defence they could recall any witnesses they wanted as a remedy to the situation. In the end, they didn’t end up doing that.

Webb did admit facilitating a meeting between police and Blades was a decision based on emotion and he “should have taken more time to consider it.”

“I was motivated by helping this young guy get his life back on track,” said Webb. “He was harbouring what he saw that night for over a year.”

Webb also told the court he was scared that by not telling police the new information he would be obstructing justice. When he originally went to police he asked to be a confidential informant to keep his name out of court records.

Somewhere in the communication between the police, Crown lawyers and defence, this confidentiality was breached and Webb’s name was brought up in open court, potentially breaching his status as a confidential informant.

During secret in-camera hearings, which the public was barred from attending, the court dealt with the issue of Webb’s confidentiality. It is unknown what the decision on that matter was but Webb’s name was used in open court thereafter.

The jury continues to deliberate.

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