Homophobic remarks on radio show by juror results in new trial

In a decision released yesterday, the Ontario Court of Appeal has overturned a conviction based on a juror’s conduct, which was ruled to have created a reasonable apprehension of bias.

Derek Welsman, jury foreman in R. v. Dowholis and producer of the since cancelled Dean Blundell show, appeared on the radio show and “made derogatory comments about sexual activity between men,” the decision reads.

“It is unusual just because factually you don’t often have a situation where the comments made by a juror are essentially on the record and can be used as evidence in court to suggest they at least displayed the apprehension of bias,” says Mark Halfyard, criminal lawyer at Rusonik O’Connor Robbins Ross Gorham & Angelini LLP.

“It’s just a matter of happenstance because he just happened to be affiliated with this radio show and, therefore, word of the communications got back to the lawyers and they were able to file that material as fresh evidence on the appeal.”

Joshua Dowholis, an HIV-positive man convicted of sexual assault in 2014, will get a new trial due to Welsman’s conduct.

“I have concluded that the conduct of the juror created a reasonable apprehension of bias such that a new trial should be ordered,” said the judgment.

Jill Presser, principal at Presser Barristers and counsel for Dowholis, said in a press release that “the court is saying that homophobia is just as unacceptable as racism in the justice system and that’s a huge step forward. The court has elevated homophobia to the no-no list in the justice system and that is really significant.”

In the two-to-one decision, dissenting Justice David Doherty argued that the radio show was known to make fun of everything and aimed to be provocative, so comments made in that context can’t be seen as a reflection of the juror’s true beliefs. Although he noted that the remarks were “inappropriate and potentially hurtful,” he goes on to write that “sometimes a joke, even a joke that is offensive, is nothing more than a joke.

“The distinction between comments that are only intended to entertain and comments that provide real insight into the speaker’s beliefs can be difficult to discern,” wrote Doherty.

“I feel my position will be misunderstood, that I do not mean to assert that humour predicated on stereotyping or ridiculing identifiable groups is harmless or acceptable,” he wrote, but that is not the concern of the appeal court. A conviction cannot be quashed based on finding a juror offensive, he wrote. That can only happen when the court is “satisfied that the comments demonstrate a reasonable apprehension of bias giving rise to a miscarriage of justice,” a hurdle he did not feel the juror’s comments cleared.

Halfyard calls the disparity a difference of opinion between the judges when it comes to the type of venue in which the comments were made.

“When you’re assessing apprehension of bias, you have to look at the context under which the comments are made,” he says. “If they’re said in a hateful way where you’d actually expect the person to express bias as opposed to jest — I think there’s a real grey area there.”

Doherty did agree that a new trial was needed but on the basis of error in instructions to the jury by the trial judge.
In a detailed decision, Justice Mary Lou Benotto disagreed with Doherty and found that “the reasonable observer would expect that a person who comes before the courts would be treated with dignity and respect and not be publicly ridiculed by the person judging him. I conclude that a reasonable person, knowing all the facts, would apprehend that consciously or unconsciously it was more likely than not that this juror would not decide fairly.”

Benotto writes that Doherty’s reference to racial bias in another court of appeal case, R. v. Parks, at para. 59 applies equally to bias against homosexuals.

“The likelihood that a bias against gay men would affect the juror’s decision-making process is greater given his willingness to publicly disregard instructions, engage in homophobic rhetoric, and mock the court process,” she writes in the majority decision. “The issue is not whether the juror meant what he said. Nor is it whether he was in fact unfair. The issue is the impression that his conduct created.”

In the release, Presser agreed the focus shouldn't be on “whether this particular juror actually was homophobic or what the entertainment value is for the radio broadcast" but on upholding the integrity of and appearance of fairness in the justice system.

Halfyard says he wouldn’t be surprised if the case goes further because “there’s such a disagreement between the majority and the dissent.”

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