Rush to judgment

Pam
Pam Frampton
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“How little do they see what really is, who frame their hasty judgment upon that which seems.”

— Daniel Webster, American statesman (1782-1852)

I served on a jury once, and when you do, you’re not allowed to discuss deliberations afterwards, so I won’t do that here.

At that trial, it seemed likely that because the accused had done one thing, he had done another.

The key words here are “seemed” and “likely.” The fact is, there was no proof.

As a result, even though the defendant was found guilty of most of the charges, we had to find him not guilty on those for which there was no substantive evidence. There was reasonable doubt.

That experience reminds me that, as human beings, we make assumptions. We jump to conclusions.

In a completely unrelated court case, this week it was announced that Nelson Hart may get a new trial for the 2002 drowning deaths of his three-year-old twin daughters, Karen and Krista.

Before you fire up your computer to write and say I am defending a convicted child killer, set your emotions aside and give Hart’s case some thought.

Anyone who would kill any child, let alone their own, is repugnant. No one would disagree with that.

On the other hand, if the process that found them guilty of such a heinous act was flawed, the case deserves another airing.

And that is Hart’s situation.

All we know for sure is that the two little girls were in his care, and that they drowned.

What we don’t know is why they drowned.

And we may never learn the truth of that.

But until we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Hart killed them or was somehow negligent, he deserves another day in court, no matter how objectionable you might perceive him to be.

Not that again

When the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court of Appeal announced Monday that the  case might go before the courts again, there was plenty of muttering about how this has dragged on long enough — 10 years — and how  it will be excruciatingly boring to have to read and hear about the case all over again, as if a trial is merely some sort of entertainment.

Some comments to The Telegram website had to be rejected because they insisted Hart was a murderer and that was that — case dismissed.

Admittedly, it’s easy to condemn his behaviour up till now.

He was notoriously non-co-operative throughout his last trial and  seemed to revel in the attention paid to him by undercover police officers in the sting operation used to extract his “confession.”

At the same time, given his sense of psychological isolation, lack of sophistication and desperate situation, he might have been willing to say anything to maintain his ties to what he thought was an organized crime mob that had made him feel important and like one of the “family.”

As the judges noted, Hart was improperly coerced.

And then there’s the fact that he was unable to testify with the courtroom cleared of people as he requested, because he is prone to epileptic seizures and has difficultly speaking and thinking straight in front of a crowd.

If you’re innocent until proven guilty, surely such simple accommodations could have been made in an effort to get the most straightforward account of the events as was possible.

Perhaps Nelson Hart really did have an epileptic seizure, Krista fell off the wharf and he panicked and went looking for his wife, leaving Karen behind to suffer the same fate.

Or perhaps Nelson Hart intentionally drowned his children and then lied about it.

Or perhaps something else happened — the facts of which we are unaware.

Of course, there may never be a second trial. Now that Hart’s questionable confession has been thrown out, the Crown’s case is on shaky ground.

If it does go to trial, the best outcome would be that the truth is exposed beyond a reasonable doubt.

If Hart is given a fair trial and is convicted, I hope he receives the full punishment he deserves.

But in a province where we have had far too many cases of tunnel vision that led to wrongful convictions, and years of people’s lives wasted, this is no time to rush to judgment.

People are quick to say the justice system is flawed, but at least in this case that has been acknowledged and every attempt is being made now to see that justice is meted out fairly.

The truth will not always out, despite what Shakespeare said.

But we must do the very best we can to find it.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and

The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at

pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court

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  • Fintip
    September 22, 2012 - 12:32

    Your headline grabber - Rush to Judgement - is a hugely inaccurate and unfair characterization of the Hart trial. Hart was convicted on the strength of his own unwitting confession secured during a sting operation undertaken by the RCMP. Putting aside the appeal court finding that Hart should have been allowed to testify in-camera (which defect in and of itself would not necessarily preclude a retrial and possible re-conviction), it is its rejection of the 'Mr. Big' sting that deals a fatal blow to any likelihood of a retrial. Justice Green has essentially said that barring any straightforward, uncoerced new confession from Hart, the truth can never be known. Well of course that's not happening and so the only recourse still open to the crown is an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Such an appeal would no doubt contest both findings of justices Green and Harrington (to which Barry dissented). The Supreme Court of appeal could find that the sting did not violate the accused's right not to incriminate himself which would result in either reinstatement of the conviction or - subject to its ruling on the in-camera testimony issue - a retrial. Whether or not there is a further appeal, and irrespective its outcome, Ms. Frampton is wrong to imply that there has been a rush to judgement. This is a case in which the defendant was given what was deemed by the crown and the initial trial judge to be due process. That assertion has now been called into question based on the appeal justices' review of changing and evolving standards of what constitutes due process - not because there was any overt, intentional act of negligent or prejudicial behaviour on the part of police or the crown. Clearly there was no 'rush to judgement' within the conventional meaning associated with that phrase. .... Lawyers rely extensively on precedent when mounting an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Among the precedents that could be cited, for example, is R. v. Oickle, [2000] 2 S.C.R. 3. This conviction was overturned on appeal because of the reliability of the confession obtained by police. The appeal court of Ontario vacated the trial judge's decision based on its doubt whether the confession was given voluntarily. However on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada the lower court ruling was overturned and the conviction reinstated. Whether or not this particular case is on point, it should serve to remind us - and Ms. Frampton - that within the justice system 'it ain't over till the fat lady sings'.

    • Pam Frampton
      September 23, 2012 - 11:25

      Actually, the headline is meant to refer to the fact that, as human beings, we are sometimes quick to condemn or judge before we have all the facts. I would certainly never refer to the 10 years that got Nelson Hart to this point as a "rush." But thank you for your feedback all the same.