Criminal Law

Oland trial demonstrates DNA not always absolute proof

By Paul Russell, Contributor

Dennis Oland’s acquittal on a second-degree murder charge in the 2011 bludgeoning death of his multimillionaire father, Richard, should serve as a reminder to police and Crown prosecutors about the limitation of DNA evidence, says Toronto criminal lawyer Laurelly Dale.

“This verdict is a really strong reinforcement for what proof beyond a reasonable doubt means,” says Dale, principal of Dale Legal Firm. “It’s the Crown’s duty to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed this crime, and there wasn’t enough evidence to do that.”

The Canadian Press (CP) reports the son was convicted by a jury in the death of his father in 2015, but that verdict was overturned on appeal a year later. A new trial was ordered, and a judge with the New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench declared him not guilty in 2019, stating Crown prosecutors failed to prove their case.

“More than suspicion is needed to convict someone of murder,” the judge told a packed Saint John courtroom. In short, I am not satisfied the Crown has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Dennis Oland who killed Richard Oland.

According to the story, the judge said there was much to implicate the son, including tiny bloodstains containing his father’s DNA on the jacket Dennis was wearing the day of the killing. The son was also believed to be the last one to see the father alive, visiting him at the office an hour before loud sounds were heard coming from the room, with the father found dead the next morning with multiple blows to his head.

“I’ve always found this case really quite fascinating,” says Dale. “It’s very much like the O.J. Simpson case, where there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence combined with some forensic evidence, but it just doesn’t reach that threshold of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

She says the Crown put great importance on minuscule blood spots found on the son’s jacket, with DNA testing indicating it came from the father.

“If the son violently killed his father, there should have been much more blood on his jacket,” Dale says, explaining there could be multiple explanations for how those small spots got there.

“A trace of DNA does not equate to that person being the murderer, or that person assisting or abetting in a crime,” she says.

Dale says the public doesn’t always understand that there is no way for investigators to tell how old DNA samples are, or when they were deposited since it can be be found 30 or 40 years after it is left.

“That is why police are able to solve cold cases once closed due to a lack of evidence,” she says. “No one can say these stains were deposited on the son’s jacket the night the father was murdered.”

Dale says she is very intrigued by how science can, and cannot, be used in criminal cases.

“One of my favourite parts of working on a homicide file is the examination of the forensic evidence, and going through pathology reports,” she says. “I find it fascinating to delve into that world. It is a never-ending learning experience as you find out what can either help or hinder your case.”

Dale notes that DNA evidence is very persuasive for jury members and some judges, who view it as reliable.

“If the Crown attorney says, ‘That’s the person because of the DNA test says so,’ some people are going to believe that statement,” she says.

As a defence attorney, Dale says she benefits from understanding the limits of what DNA evidence tells us.

“The more I know about it, the stronger my cross-examination and my explanations to the judge and jury will be,” she says.

The CP story states that police considered the son the only suspect from the day the body was found.

“There seems to have been a bit of tunnel vision that ran through the investigation, which may have led police to overlook other evidence,” Dale says, adding that it reminds her of a case involving a high-profile Toronto couple, which police initially labelled as a murder/suicide.

“As a result, they may have destroyed a great deal of relevant evidence that probably could help find the killer,” she says.

With the Oland case, Dale says it is ironic that the police and Crown put so much emphasis on the DNA on the son’s jacket as proof he killed his father, since, in hindsight, it almost helps the son’s defence, as it was so insignificant and could have been left there on other occasions.

“Simply because it exists, DNA is not necessarily the absolute proof that some people in trials want it to be,” she says.

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