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'A case can be built on circumstantial evidence:' experts discuss Cormier trial

Last Updated Feb 21, 2018 at 5:40 pm EDT

People enter the Law Courts in Winnipeg for the trial of Raymond Cormier, Tina Fontaine's alleged killer, Monday, February 5, 2018. A jury has finished hearing evidence in the trial for a man accused in the death of an Indigenous teen whose body was found wrapped in a duvet filled with rocks in Winnipeg's Red River. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Legal experts say a lack of physical evidence in the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine makes it difficult, but not impossible, for a jury to convict her accused killer in what has become a symbolic case for Indigenous women in Canada.

Criminologist Steven Kohm at the University of Winnipeg says people have been found guilty without direct proof, even when the bodies of victims haven’t been found.

“It is not a requirement that there be physical evidence of a crime in order for a conviction to be entered,” Kohm says.

“A case can be built of circumstantial evidence. But there has to be … enough to remove any reasonable doubt on the part of the jurors.”

Tina’s body, wrapped in a duvet cover, was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg several days after she disappeared in August 2014.

But the second-degree murder trial of Raymond Cormier has heard that the cause of the girl’s death could not be determined. No DNA was found linking Cormier to her body. And there were no witnesses to the alleged slaying.

Tina was an exploited youth who had been living at a hotel in the care of social services when she was reported missing. Court heard that she had met Cormier, a methamphetamine and crack user, earlier that summer and he gave her drugs and had sex with her.

The Crown has argued Cormier, 56, killed Tina because he feared he would be arrested for having sex with a minor. In audio recordings during an undercover police operation, Cormier said he would bet that Tina was killed because “I found out she was 15 years old.”

The defence pointed out that there are too many holes in the case and Tina could have died of a drug overdose.

The jury began it’s deliberations Wednesday afternoon.

Kohm says the enormity of the case is likely to weigh on the minds of the jurors.

Tina’s death shocked the country and led the Manitoba government to phase out the use of hotels for kids in government care. It also reignited calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“I think she came to symbolize the larger struggle, the larger social problem or crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,” Kohm says.

Kohm says the jurors may also find themselves under pressure because of a recent, high-profile case in Saskatchewan.

An apparently all-white jury acquitted a white farmer, Gerald Stanley, of second-degree murder in the 2016 shooting death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man.

Court heard that Boushie’s friends were drinking and had tried to break into a truck on a neighbouring farm before they drove onto Stanley’s property. Stanley testified he fired warning shots and then his gun went off accidentally, striking Boushie in the head.

The verdict sparked rallies across the country and the federal government spoke of the need to improve the jury process for Indigenous people.

David Milward, an associate professor of law at the University of Manitoba, says he didn’t agree with the Stanley verdict. And he’s not sure yet if he can compare the Stanley and Cormier cases.

Jurors tend to rely on an accused’s “confessionary” statements, he says, otherwise ignoring gaps in a trial.

“He made several statements basically all but admitting that he actually did kill her,” Milward says of the undercover tapes in the Cormier case.

If the jury acquits Cormier, Milward says he’s going to again question the jury process.

“If you have Gerald Stanley not guilty and Raymond Cormier not guilty, like less than two weeks apart, I’m starting to think you have a real issue about jury nullification and substantive injustice.”