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Judge cites 'reasonable doubt' in high-profile sexual-assault cases

An investigation into possible hazing activities by athletes at Stephenville High School is being carried out the Bay St. George RCMP.
Stephenville High School. - Frank Gale

STEPHENVILLE, N.L. — A judge says reasonable doubt led her to acquit a teenager of sexual-assault related charges, allegations that had shaken a small-town Newfoundland high school and spurred the province to update school safety policies.

Stephenville High School students protested last February after a student who was accused of attacking at least three girls in separate incidents was allowed to attend school and potentially cross paths with his accusers.

But Judge Lynn Cole acquitted him of all charges in his first two provincial court trials earlier this year, saying she was left with doubt around the young man's guilt.

The judge released her two written decisions explaining her reasons this week, after an application from The Canadian Press.

The first trial in June dealt with charges of sexual assault and administering a "stupefying drug" in October 2017.

The second trial dealt with charges of assault, sexual assault and an alleged attempt to choke his accuser in December 2017.

Mark Mills, the young man's lawyer, said a third set of charges from a separate incident is being dealt with by way of a plea bargain. He expects it will likely be resolved in January and said the case is "by far the least serious" of the three.

The young man's identity is protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Both girls testified that the assaults happened after the accused picked them up in a vehicle and drove to a secluded area.

In her decision dated Aug. 27, the judge said the complainant testified the boy offered her a pill to "help her relax" while she was in a vehicle drinking alcohol at a park.

She said she started to feel unwell and described a "cloudy" memory of the encounter. She said she "blacked out" a couple of times as they had sex in the vehicle. She described feeling afraid to say no and said she feared she would be left without a ride home.

In his own evidence, the youth said they never had sex and that her evidence was "completely false." The teen's grandfather testified that his grandson had been in his room at home on the evening of the alleged assault.

In her decision, Cole ruled that the evidence, including the youth's denial, left her with reasonable doubt.  

"There were no inconsistencies on important details and his unwavering denial of the allegations," Cole wrote. 

"I have a reasonable doubt that he is guilty of the offences with which he is charged."

In the other trial, the girl testified that the accused drove her to a parking lot in December 2017. She testified that he started to kiss her and "things progressed at a rate with which she was uncomfortable," the judge said.

The girl testified that she indicated lack of consent by trying to cover herself and pulling away. She said the accused had his hands around her throat so that she "couldn't say anything or breathe."

"She did ... acknowledge being scared and said she was prepared to do whatever she could to get out of the situation," the judge said.  

The male youth testified that the encounter was consensual and denied she did anything to resist. He testified that the girl started kissing him and said he asked for consent throughout the encounter. He said he believed she was angry after he said he was not interested in a relationship.

The judge wrote in her Nov. 27 decision that she found the girl forthcoming in her evidence. She did take issue with some aspects of the boy's version of events, including the fact that he testified asking for consent throughout the encounter but did not use protection.

The judge also noted the shifting terminology he used to describe how he touched the girl's neck in the alleged choking incident.

"While parts of his evidence are troublesome I cannot disregard it."

The judge acquitted the youth on all charges because she was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that consent was not given, or that it was given out of fear. She also wrote that she was not convinced the defendant choked the girl to enable an assault.

The judge noted in both cases there were some inconsistencies in the complainants' statements, some around the nature of social media conversations with the accused, but she noted that many of these should be considered in the context of the witnesses' young ages.

Lawyer Mark Mills said shortly after the second acquittal in November that his client was looking forward to getting his life "back on track."

Mills said many of the 8,000 residents of Stephenville know who the young man is.

"The majority of people are well aware of who he is, and his reputation has been irreparably damaged and he has been pre-judged in the court of public opinion," Mills said. "He has a lot to overcome despite in the eyes of the law being fully innocent."

The high-profile cases created a ripple effect that eventually prompted province-wide legislative change.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School Board acknowledged in February that the accused faced sexual assault allegations, but cited provincial law preventing education authorities from removing a student from school even if they are facing criminal charges.

Since then, the provincial government has announced changes to its Schools Act that would empower education officials to refuse school admission to a student whose presence would be "detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of students or staff."

In these cases, educators would be able to offer alternate instruction such as online courses.

- By Holly McKenzie-Sutter in St. John's, N.L.

The Canadian Press

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