Is retrial for violent sexual offender a dangerous precedent?

Many criminal law experts across Quebec are shaking their heads over last week’s decision by the Quebec Court of Appeal decision to order the retrial of a man sentenced to 23 years in jail, for a series of violent sexual assaults, due to his lawyer’s incompetence.

“It’s another sign of how distinct the justice system is in Quebec,” former Quebec justice minister and well-known defence attorney Marc Bellemare told Legal Feeds. “Our system is all about protecting the rights of criminals over that of their victims.”

In its ruling in R. v. Vachon, the appeal court panel found that the judge in the 2008 trial of Jacques Vachon failed to take into consideration complaints by the accused that he had lost confidence in his lawyer, Germain Côté. Côté was later suspended for life by the Quebec Bar over unrelated charges.

Vachon’s new lawyer, Alain Dumas, argued that the decision was similar to the 1999 case (R. v. Delisle), when the Quebec Court of Appeal ordered a new trial because of the incompetency of the defence lawyer.

But defence lawyers across the province say the decision is both unique and dangerous. Montreal criminal lawyer Rénald Beaudry called the decision “a cold shower” for Quebec’s legal community.

But Bellemare, who could never be accused of mincing his words, said the decision was another example of Quebec judges bending backwards in theirs efforts to defend the rights of the accused, no matter how horrendous their crimes.

He compared the decision to retry Vachon — a man he called “a monster capable of the most reprehensible acts imaginable” and who may be released from prison pending his new trial — to the recent acquittal of cardiologist Dr. Guy Turcotte for the murder of his two young children.

“This decision sets an extremely dangerous precedent,” said Bellemare. “The convicted often argue that their lawyer is incompetent [and] I’ve seen some cases that have been unbelievably botched, believe me. But I have never seen a retrial ordered over such a claim. Just imagine where we’re headed now that that door has been opened.”

Bellemare and other jurists are calling on Quebec Liberal Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. “He has to put his pants on in this matter,” said Bellemare, who knows some of Vachon’s many victims.  “If it’s allowed to stand we’re all in trouble.”

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