OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada has restored the second-degree murder conviction of a Halifax-area man who admitted to repeatedly burning his girlfriend's body but insisted he didn't kill her.
A jury convicted Paul Trevor Calnen of the second-degree murder of Reita Louise Jordan, 35, in March 2013.
The man from Hammonds Plains, N.S., pleaded guilty to burning her body and scattering her ashes in a lake, but maintained he did not cause her death, claiming she accidentally fell down the stairs.
The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal overturned the murder conviction in 2017, in part because the lower court judge did not properly instruct the jury.
The appeal court said the trial judge erred in denying Calnen's request to remove second-degree murder as an option for the jury, and replace it with manslaughter. But one appeal court judge dissented, giving the Crown the right to appeal the decision, which it did.
In a divided decision released Friday, the Supreme Court concluded that evidence of Calnen's conduct after Jordan's death was admissible in determining whether he caused her death and whether he intended to kill her — two essential elements of second-degree murder.
The court also concluded the trial judge's instructions to the jury were adequate, and the fact he did not instruct them about general propensity reasoning — concluding someone has committed an offence based on evidence of the accused's bad character — did not amount to a "reversible error."
"The risk that the jury would engage in general propensity reasoning based on the evidence of the accused's after-the-fact conduct was considerably offset by the trial judge's introductory and final jury instructions, which were neutral, fair and balanced," the 137-page judgment said.
"The trial judge's opening instructions and his answer to a question from the jury insulated the jury from reasoning that the accused's guilty plea to indecent interference with the victim's remains meant it was more likely that he committed second-degree murder."
The decision went on to say: "It is clear that he properly equipped the jury to make reasonable inferences from the circumstantial evidence without resorting to specious reasoning or speculation."
Of the panel of five Supreme Court of Canada judges, one dissented from the decision and another dissented in part.
The decision said Jordan was living with Calnen at the time of her death.
The sexual relationship, which appeared to have been fuelled by their joint use of crack cocaine, was coming to an end.
Text messages revealed Jordan was planning to move out of Calnen's home, and that there was a heated exchange between the two.
Calnen claimed that Jordan took a swing at him in anger, missed, and fell down the stairs.
He said he tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but decided she was dead.
Rather than call for help, Calnen used crack cocaine and decided to remove Jordan's body.
Over the following weeks, Calnen went to great lengths to destroy her body, first hiding it on a logging road in Ingramport, N.S., and then transporting it to another logging road in Pleasant Valley, N.S., a few days later.
On a third logging road, he gathered branches and trees and built a large fire to burn her body. But he received a call from the police, so he put out the fire and put the remaining portion of Jordan's body — the torso — into a canvas bag.
A few days later, Calnen finished burning her remains in the fire pit behind his home. He then put her ashes in a bucket, drove to a lake near her family cottage, and placed her ashes near a diving rock.
The following night he took body parts not consumed in the fire and used a boat to put them in the same lake.
"He told the police that he put her remains in the lake because that is what he and Ms. Jordan had discussed previously about what they each wanted done with their respective remains," the judgment said.
Prosecutor Jennifer MacLellan said she was pleased that the Crown's appeal was successful, and believes the decision will impact other cases where the accused's conduct after an offence plays a role.
"We feel this is an important issue for this and other cases and for the state of the law in Canada. There seemed to have been some reticence from some courts about using this evidence," said MacLellan at the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service office.
"It's an issue that's come up in a number of cases and a number of matters that we even have ongoing, so having the use of post-offence conduct and what we can do with it ... is going to be very important for other cases."
Calnen's lawyer, Peter Planetta, described Calnen's case as a "roller-coaster."
"We obviously really believed in our argument. Mr. Calnen maintains his innocence, and we went to the top court in the country and they made their decision and we respect that, but we're obviously very disappointed," said Planetta at Halifax provincial court, where he was appearing on another matter.
"What Mr. Calnen acknowledged doing after the fact was reprehensible, and it would have an impact on the jury — it makes him look bad — and may misled them into thinking that, well, he's guilty because he looks bad in this other regard."
Calnen was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 15 years. He received a concurrent sentence of five years for indecently interfering with human remains.
Planetta said Friday's decision restores the trial judge's sentence.
— By Aly Thomson in Halifax.
The Canadian Press