Had they lived to see adulthood, it’s unlikely Candace Derksen and Tina Fontaine would ever have known each other, or known about each other.
Candace was 13 in November 1984 when she was abducted while on her way home from school. In January 1985, she was found hog-tied and frozen to death in an industrial shed.
Candace Derksen was abducted in November 1984 and found dead in January 1985.
Tina was 15 in August 2014 when she disappeared. Her body was found wrapped in a duvet cover in the Red River. The cause of her death is unknown.
At first glance, you might not see much of a connection between two cases involving victims of different backgrounds and generations. But there are a remarkable number of points of intersection, not least of which are the final dispositions.
In both cases, the accused — loathsome men with lengthy and disturbing criminal records — were acquitted despite the best efforts of police and prosecutors, in verdicts that left the public angry and disillusioned.
First, a deeper look into each case.
Derksen went missing in November 1984; her body was found in January 1985. Mark Grant was arrested in 2007 and convicted in 2011 of second-degree murder. A new trial was ordered on appeal in 2013.
If you didn’t look too closely at the evidence, Grant was a perfect fit for the role of Candace’s killer. He was a bad man with a long criminal past that included several sexual assaults. He seemed in every way not only a man capable of extreme violence in general, but the most likely suspect in this case in particular.
However, last October, a Winnipeg judge acquitted Grant at the retrial. The judge’s verdict was based largely on the fact that DNA evidence used to convict Grant at his first trial in 2011 was deeply compromised. Once that evidence was undermined, the remainder of the case was threadbare.
Nearly 30 years from the day Candace was found, another tragedy involving a vulnerable girl captured this city’s attention.
Tina disappeared from the custody of Child and Family Services on Aug. 9. She had been living on and off the streets of Winnipeg for weeks, in and out of government care. A little more than a week later, her body was found in the Red River.
After an extensive investigation, police and prosecutors charged Raymond Cormier, a man who, like Grant, appeared in every way possible to be the kind of man who’d harm a teenage girl. Cormier has an extensive criminal record that involves more than 90 convictions and a history of violent offences.
Throughout its investigation, the Winnipeg Police Service sought to establish that Cormier offered Tina a place to stay when she was on the run, plied her with drugs and that he had sex with her. Wiretap recordings from an extensive undercover operation painted a picture of an abusive man who certainly postured as a killer.
However, the sometimes profane and disturbing wiretap recordings were also ambiguous. The rest of the case was circumstantial. In the end, it was not enough to convict Cormier.
Studied closely, the two cases reveal some of the greatest frailties and strengths of the criminal justice system, and the extent to which the rules of engagement on the most alarming and violent cases have changed significantly in recent years.
Years ago, flimsy cases such as this would have been fortified with an array of questionable evidence and manipulative prosecutorial strategies. As we have seen in confirmed cases of wrongful conviction involving men like Thomas Sophonow, James Driskell and Kyle Unger, police and prosecutors had a special bag of tricks when dealing with the most violent and disturbing cases.
Junk science — blood serology, hair and fibre comparison — would be oversold to juries by immoral prosecutors as unimpeachable evidence of guilt. Jailhouse informants were summoned to recount spontaneous confessions. Exculpatory evidence was regularly kept from defence counsel.
The result was that police and prosecutors were able to secure convictions without any direct evidence.
None of the telltale signs of a corrupt investigation and prosecution were evident in the Grant and Cormier trials, for the most part. The people most affected by these crimes will not be comforted by this, but the absence of dirty tricks, deliberate misdirection and junk evidence is a sign of progress in the way the justice system handles the most serious criminal cases.
These verdicts also, however, remind us of the inherent frailties of the justice system.
No reasonable person believes that we should, as a society, abandon the principles of "innocent until proven guilty" and "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." But when we accept those principles, we are also accepting that the road to a secure and unimpeachable conviction is very steep indeed.
So steep, in fact, that if past practice is followed, there will be no additional internal or external work done on either case.
Following acquittals or a decision to vacate a previous conviction based on a miscarriage of justice, police and prosecutors rarely resume the investigation, or review the original investigations, condemning these crimes to a life sentence in the cold-case archive.
We need to know more about why these prosecutions did not result in convictions. It could be that the accused were just too lucky or too smart to provide the evidence necessary for a guilty verdict. Or, it could be that in each case, we had the wrong person.
Police and prosecutors — the ministers of the justice system — should remember that those affected by the deaths of Candace and Tina do not want these crimes to languish in a file room. They still want justice, even if the setbacks we have witnessed in recent months make the path to achieving it a longer and harder climb.