How would you feel if your DNA was used to convict a family member?
Last week, news consumers were divided on the use of this tactic to identify and arrest Ibrahim Ali who was recently convicted of the murder and sexual assault of a 13 year old victim in 2017 in Burnaby.
Investigators went undercover at a 2018 Kurdish New Year Celebration handing out samples of tea in hopes of collecting DNA from their suspect – and it worked. Police were able to obtain a sample from a relative of the suspect. The sample was analyzed and compared against the DNA sample collected from semen found inside the victim, and the results were conclusive: the sample collected at the Kurdish New Year Celebration belonged to the brother of the whomever’s DNA was found inside the victim. This critical development resulted in the positive identification of Ibrahim Ali, his subsequent arrest and ultimately, his conviction.
However, certain civil liberties advocates have decried this investigative strategy, claiming it infringes on the privacy rights of people who have their DNA seized when they themselves are not suspected of any wrongdoing. Further, genealogical DNA testing is not frequently accessed or available technology in Canada. As a result, the analysis is often done in the United States, further stoking concerns from privacy experts. Police are required to maintain a “chain of custody” for all exhibits in a case. When the exhibits are forensic material, it is especially important that the chain of custody be meticulously maintained. This becomes increasingly difficult when exhibits leave the custody of Canadian agencies. Further, labs in the United States (and beyond) may not be accredited to the same standard as a Canadian lab. And of course, when private and sensitive material exists in the database of outside agencies, there is always a security risk.
Genealogical DNA testing and its use in criminal law is still very much in its infancy – in Canada, anyways.
This investigational technique gained notoriety in 2018 when it was used to identify and convict the Golden State killer in California, and made headlines again in December 2022 when it was used to identify Bryan Kohberger, currently awaiting trial for the murder of four college students at the University of Idaho.
Canadian Courts and legislators are no doubt paying close attention to developments in the field of Genealogical DNA testing. It is more important now than ever – in the age of ever-advancing scientific exploration and sophisticated tools like AI – that the Courts, and the law, can maintain pace.
It has been six years since Matthew de Grood was charged with the murders of five young people at a house party in Calgary, Alberta, and four years since he was found to be Not Criminally Responsible for those offences.
It was concluded that de Grood was suffering from delusions, attributed to undiagnosed schizophrenia, when he caused the deaths of five schoolmates from a local university. He has been in a secure psychiatric facility ever since.
As we have discussed in previous posts, a finding of NCR is neither a determination of guilt, nor an acquittal. It is the beginning of alternative proceedings, which ultimately seek to determine if/when an Accused person can be released back into the community. Like all individuals found NCR, de Grood is required to appear before the Review Board to assess his progress, and to evaluate what freedoms, if any, he may be granted as a result of said progress.
Back in 2016, the Crown suggested it would be making an Application to seek a “High Risk NCR” designation for de Grood. Had this designation been imposed, his appearance before the Review Board would have been extended to take place every three years instead of annually. However – it appears that the Application was never made. This was likely due to the fact that the relevant legislation – the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act – did not go into force until July 11, 2014, nearly 3 months after the offences took place. As such, the law could not be retroactively applied to de Grood’s case.
At his recent hearing, de Grood’s counsel spoke of the progress he has made during his time at the psychiatric facility. He has been afforded the opportunity to spend the night at his parent’s home on several occasions, taking hospital transportation to and from medical appointments, and volunteering with Meals on Wheels. His counsel submits that de Grood should be granted an absolute discharge due, in part, to the progress he has made with his mental health issues, including being cooperative with taking his medication – and recognizing the devastating consequences that would come as a result of not taking it. He has also demonstrated a high level of remorse for his actions.
Defence counsel further acknowledged that de Grood’s case is extremely high profile. There are concerns regarding the public’s reaction to seeing him on public transit, and how he may face serious adversity in transitioning to a group home.
The Review Board reserved its decision, and accordingly, de Grood remains in a psychiatric facility with heavy restrictions on his freedoms.
On March 18, 2020, the BC court system responded to the coronavirus pandemic swiftly and without hesitation, reducing operations by the likes of which criminal counsel simply hasn’t seen before. Once it was confirmed how rapidly COVID19 spreads, the crowded confines of publicly accessed courtrooms were immediately deemed inappropriate – dangerous even. Since courtrooms often yield a congregation of some of society’s most vulnerable people, it made perfect sense to act defensively. These decisions, and many others effecting the justice system, were made only one week after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
Unfortunately, there was a noticeable absence of urgency when it came time to protect the vulnerable inmate population overcrowded and totally confined within the walls of Mission Institution.
“In the worst-case scenario, CSC will need to order more body bags and find cold storage to stack up the bodies of those whose lives will be lost that could have been saved” – Justin Piche, criminologist, Criminalization and Punishment Project at the University of Ottawa
On March 31, 2020, federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair recommended that the Correctional Service of Canada (“CSC”) immediately consider the release of non-violent inmates to mitigate the unavoidable reality that the virus could, and would, devastate the wellbeing of prison populations. His recommendation came on the heels of the CSC announcing the first two positive COVID-19 cases in federal institutions in Quebec.
On April 4, 2020, the CSC announced 4 confirmed cases at Mission Institution, leading to a lockdown of the facility.
By April 8, 2020, there were 11 confirmed cases, all inmates. Nearly one month had passed since the WHO declared a global pandemic.
By April 18, 60 inmates and 10 staff tested positive, and the CSC marked its first coronavirus related inmate death, exactly one month after the courts effectively shut down.
By April 25, 2020, 106 inmates and 12 correctional officers were confirmed to be infected, representing the largest outbreak in the Canadian Correctional System. On this date, the CSC advised that all inmates at Mission Medium Institution had been tested, but in any event, new cases were continuing to be discovered.
While disturbing, none of these developments are surprising. The largest incidence of outbreaks has been at long-term care homes – combining close quarters, limited mobility, and care-workers employed at more than one facility is a recipe for disaster when it comes to COVID-19, a pathogen that spreads and infects without discrimination. The same vulnerabilities exist within the correctional system, where they are intensified. Inmates and corrections staff are simply unable to practice crucial social distancing. Personal protective equipment for inmates has not been prioritized as it has in other sectors, despite these individuals being at a much higher risk of getting sick.
The CSC responded to COVID-19 by prohibiting visits to inmates, temporary absences, work releases, and inmate transfers between correctional facilities. While these steps likely helped to curb the spread of the virus, as a whole, they are grossly inadequate. Without a vaccine, social distancing remains our greatest defence against the virus. For the inmates at Mission Institution and those incarcerated at facilities across Canada, proper protective equipment is hard to come by, but hope is even harder.