STEPHAN DEFENCE: ‘ALL YOU NEED IS ONE REASONABLE DOUBT’
It’s a job few people look forward to, with stories abounding in popular culture about the extraordinary measures some take to avoid it.
Yet the role of a jurist in a democracy is an essential one, helping to ensure that such fundamental values as the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt are given more than mere lip service.
On Friday morning, Shawn Buckley began what would be a more than four-hour address to the eight women and four men sitting in the jury box in a Lethbridge courtroom. He started out the day by reminding them of these and other basic concepts, in his closing arguments in the trial against David and Collet Stephan.
“Right now, David and Collet are presumed to be innocent,” said Buckley, the couple’s defence lawyer.
They are, he added, “depending on you” to determine if the Crown has proven “every single element” of its case.
The husband and wife, formerly of the Cardston area now living in B.C., are on trial for failing to provide the necessaries of life for their son Ezekiel.
Those charges — which could result in jail time of up to five years and possibly the loss of custody of their other three sons — stem from Ezekiel’s death on March 18, 2012.
The toddler died after succumbing to what a pathologist testified was a combination of bacterial meningitis and a lung infection.
The Crown contends that the child’s death occurred after he suffered from deteriorating health for more than two weeks; despite this, they say his parents chose herbal remedies and other naturopathic treatments, rather than take their son to a physician or hospital.
While a trial centred on the death of someone so young and vulnerable can be expected to be emotionally charged, this one has more than filled the bill.
Throughout the six weeks it’s been going, there have been many tears, from those testifying on the stand to those sitting in the courtroom and including some jurors.
Last week, that emotion hit a fever pitch when Collet Stephan, the 35-year-old mother of three other boys, cried throughout much of her two days on the stand, her tears matched by several supporters in the courtroom gallery as well as a handful of jurors.
No doubt, the Stephans’ defence lawyer took this into account, with an address to the jury that steered away from emotion and instead zeroed in on the evidence. Buckley, in fact, took on his task calmly and with an approach akin to a university professor lecturing to a first-year class.
In his preamble about those above-noted democratic ideals and the important role and responsibilities of a jury, he made references to such famed historical figures as Shakespeare as well as Mark Antony and Brutus.
He also used folksy analogies like baking a vanilla souffle and later in the day, he turned to popular culture icons like Sesame Street and Sherlock Holmes to help illustrate key points.
Yet he didn’t speak down to the jurors, the 12 individuals who have sat through countless hours of testimony and cross-examination over the past six weeks.
In a soft voice, he provided a detailed listing of facets of the Crown’s case where he saw the potential for reasonable doubt: including the testimony of three individuals who didn’t see signs of a medical emergency in Ezekiel in the days and hours leading to his parents calling 911 after he stopped breathing.
Buckley also spent a good portion of the day reviewing the testimony of Dr. Anny Sauvageau, who earlier in the week provided testimony contradicting the findings of the first pathologist. Sauvageau — the former chief medical examiner for Alberta who currently has a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the province — said Ezekiel likely died of viral meningitis, adding she’d never seen a child die of that form of the disease.
Instead, Sauvageau said the boy died because paramedics couldn’t establish an airway quickly and he probably would have survived if the ambulance was properly equipped — a situation Buckley repeatedly referred to as the “paramedic misadventure.”
He also spoke about out how meningitis was a “tricky disease” and one that even physicians had a hard time diagnosing.
“If this was a couple who had problems with the medical system, then why did they engage the medical system?” he asked, adding that if the two were “nutbars” who didn’t believe in the medical establishment but realized their child was having a health emergency, why wouldn’t they have at least taken him to a naturopath.
“All you need is one reasonable doubt, on one essential element,” he reminded the jurors before closing his binder to signal the end of the day.
The Crown will deliver closing arguments Saturday.