Citing “omissions and inconsistencies” in a teenage complainant’s testimony, an NWT Supreme Court judge found Michael St John not guilty of sexual assault and sexual interference.
Following a two-day trial in Yellowknife this week, Justice John Little delivered his verdict on Thursday morning to St John, now 57, previously a swim coach and a former trustee of the francophone school board in Hay River.
“The Crown bears the heavy onus of proving criminal allegations beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Little. “A conviction for these offences, with concerns I have about this evidence, would be dangerous.
“The omissions and inconsistencies in [the complainant’s] testimony leave me with a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, the Crown has not met its onus.”
The teenager alleged St John fondled them in 2012 or 2013 during a massage, when they were nine or 10 years old. There is a publication ban on any information that could identify the complainant.
Both Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane and defence lawyer Lauren Garcia relied heavily on a precedent-setting decision that summarizes how courts must deal with the evidence of children.
“[It is] to take a common-sense approach,” said Little. “And while not imposing the same exacting standards as we do on adults … we need to recognize that children and adults focus on things differently and that children’s sense of time and space is not [the same] as of adults.
“But that does not mean they do not know what happened and who did it.”
The judge said he had no concerns over the complainant’s inability to recall their exact age at the time of the alleged assault, or that they provided more detail now than they did in a 2014 police interview.
However, in that 2014 interview, the complainant also said that no one, including St John, had ever touched their private parts.
“This concerns me,” said Little, noting the Crown argued the complainant wasn’t ready to talk about it at the time, but the defence maintained it was proof of evasiveness.
“I’m not certain I can excuse [the complainant’s] earlier denial, in what I can only assume was a safe environment, as simply an unwillingness to share.”
The judge said he had problems with the complainant’s description of the length of time of the alleged assault being between 15 seconds and five minutes.
“That range of time strikes me as incredible,” said Little, noting the complainant showed good attention to detail while testifying about the alleged incident.
The complainant testified on Tuesday by video from another room in the courthouse.
The judge noted the complainant had “some animus” toward St John for matters unrelated to the alleged sexual assault. Those details can’t be published as they could identify the complainant.
This was St John’s third sexual assault trial. In 2015 he was sentenced to three years in prison for sexually assaulting a minor. In 2016 he was acquitted of sexually assaulting an intimate adult partner.