07/09/2012 04:57 EDT | Updated 09/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Richard Oland homicide forensics delay probed

A year after prominent Saint John businessman Richard Oland was found slain in his office, city police say they’re still waiting for evidence in the homicide investigation to be analyzed by third-party forensic labs.

The head of the RCMP’s forensic services operations across Canada declined to say whether he’s ever heard of one case taking a year to complete.

Chief Supt. Reg Trudel, director general of forensics, also declined to discuss the Oland investigation, saying he can’t comment on any specific case.

But he did say the RCMP usually handles such cases for municipal police forces and that homicides are generally treated as a top priority.

"Homicides, sexual assaults — anything that’s very serious in nature, such as those," Trudel said.

Turnaround times vary, depending on the type of evidence being analyzed, but are usually agreed upon up front, he said.

"This is usually a discussion that our forensic assessment centre here in Ottawa will have with the lead investigator, or one of the main investigators on the case, where they’ll agree on a diary date for the processing of the exhibits.

"So it’s a consultative approach and in most cases, a decision is mutual."

Saint John police have said blood and fibres were among the evidence gathered from Oland’s office on Canterbury Street — Far End Corporation — where his body was discovered on July 7, 2011.

The RCMP’s average turnaround for such biological evidence is about 44 days, said Trudel.

"If it’s a priority case, as a matter of fact, I mean, the turnaround time can be much quicker than 44 days."

Turnaround times improving

Those statistics are constantly improving and are expected to continue to do so with recent restructuring, he said.

In 2007, for example, the RCMP had about 3,100 service requests and the average turnaround times were between 140 days.

"In 2011 we went to 6,300 service requests — so twice the amount of service requests — and we’ve reduced the turnaround time from 140 days to approximately 40 to 45 days," Trudel said.

"To do that, we had to implement a system that does make sense and serves everyone well because everyone wants their exhibits back as quickly as they can.

"So this is where we get into this discussion with investigators and identify the most significant and promising, which we call most probative exhibits, to be submitted first."

Those exhibits will then be sent to whichever lab is best-equipped to handle that type of evidence and has the least backlog. Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver, for example, all provide DNA analysis.

"So we spread the workload evenly across the country, which enables us to give a faster turnaround time," Trudel said.

Some cases take longer

He noted there may be occasions when the RCMP will process a piece of evidence a second time if no results come up the first time.

"We may decide as an abundance of caution, because the case is significant, to reprocess the exhibit. So it would take us twice as long," he said.

"So there are cases that may take longer because of limitations, because we obtain a negative result at the end, and we want to make sure everything possible has been done. So there can be delays, depending on the circumstances."

In some cases, investigating officers may send a second batch of evidence if the initial ones produce no results, Trudel said.

There is no limit on the number of exhibits allowed for one case, he said.

Asked at what point a homicide would get bumped down in priority, Trudel said "there's really no set time that would tip the scale from an ongoing case to a cold case.

"Again, it goes back to my earlier comment where the forensic assessment centre would discuss the situation with the lead investigator and then they would assess and decide on a priority for the case."

May be time to call in help

Saint John Police Chief Bill Reid confirmed four days after Oland's death that the 69-year-old was the victim of a homicide and likely knew his killer.

He also said there was no evidence to suggest it was a robbery or a random act, and that there was no reason to believe anyone else was in danger.

But the chief has remained tight-lipped about the investigation, refusing to divulge how Oland died, whether any weapons were involved, or what evidence investigators gathered from the scene and from several search warrants executed in the weeks following his death.

Michael Boudreau, a criminology professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, says it may be time to call in an outside force to help with the Oland investigation.

"Another police force, notably the RCMP, would bring a fresh perspective to the case and they might to able to see something in the evidence that the Saint John police have overlooked," Boudreau told CBC News.

Earlier this year, Boudreau expressed sympathy for police investigators, who face high expectations in handling such cases.

The public often has unrealistic expectations on how quickly crimes can be solved based on what they see on television. He referred to so-called CSI effect, named after the highly rated crime drama that follows crime scene investigators as they solve complex crimes during the one-hour program.

But a year is a long time for a case to remain unsolved, said Boudreau.

"The longer that a case goes unsolved, the harder it is to solve because it becomes more difficult for the police to locate new evidence," he said.

Still, it's "not impossible" for a case like the Oland investigation to be solved, even a year after the fact, Boudreau said.

The Department of Public Safety declined to comment.

The department has no involvement in the matter "as it is a municipal policing issue," spokeswoman Lisa Harrity stated in an email.

"The department does not have the authority to call in another force to assist or take over any case," she added.

However, the provincial government's website lists a policing services section for the Department of Public Safety.

"Policing Services has the responsibility to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of municipal/regional police forces," the website states.

"Municipal policing is the primary linkage between the province and municipal/regional police forces and professional police associations.

"It is involved in training initiatives, the development of professional standards, and the provision of advice to the policing community."

The Department of Justice doesn't have any involvement in municipal policing either, according to a spokesperson.

Range of public opinions

Public opinion on the streets of Saint John is mixed.

Jonathan Kipping said he’s confident in the Saint John Police Force. "However, I’d just like to know what’s going on with the whole process right now," he said.

"It would be nice to know where they are. And you know, the public should be informed about this kind of thing."

Sean McIllwraith also wonders what the holdup is. He wants to know why, after a year, police still haven't released new information on the case.

"I'd really like to know what this is all about — you know, such a high profile [case] and with the warrants still being sealed, no one can tell what’s going on and I wonder how long this is going to go on."

Search warrants under wraps

Police are fighting to keep search warrants related to the case under wraps.

They are seeking a court order to keep the documents sealed for another six months.

CBC News and the Telegraph-Journal are challenging the request by police to extend the sealing order.

The courts have ruled that warrants are normally public and should only be sealed by a judge in "extraordinary" cases, said lawyer David Coles, who is representing the media outlets.

He contends the search warrants, the information used to obtain them, and information about the items seized, should be made public to reassure citizens that the investigation is proper, that it's proceeding and that the rights of the people who were searched were protected.

A closed hearing has been scheduled for July 31. One of the lead investigators is expected to testify before the judge and lawyers involved as to why the documents should remain sealed. Members of the public and media will not be allowed to attend the hearing.

Criminal defence lawyer Gary Miller, who previously told CBC News he had been retained by Oland's son, Dennis Oland, and Bill Teed, who is representing other members of the Oland family, are both opposed to having the documents released.

Prosecutors have previously argued the documents contain "hallmark" forensic evidence that only the person or persons responsible for Oland’s death would know about, and releasing them could jeopardize the investigation.

Police searched the home of Dennis Oland, on Gondola Point Road in Rothesay on July 14. They spent several hours on the scene and carted away several bags and boxes.

The following day, police also searched a nearby wooded area by the Bill McGuire Community Centre.

On July 21, the search extended to the Royal Kennebeccasis Yacht Club in Saint John, where divers combed the murky waters and officers searched a sailboat co-owned by Dennis Oland's wife, Lisa Oland, and another woman.

Details about other search warrants and a production order executed in the case are now under a publication ban.

Homicide solve rates

The percentage of homicides solved across the country in 2010 — the most recent statistics available — was 75.3 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

Although the report ranks so-called clearance rates for various offences among the 30 largest police agencies in the country, it does not rank Saint John for homicides.

"Due to the variability in small numbers, the percentage of incidents cleared by police have not been shown when the number of victims is below five," the report states.

The probability of clearing a homicide in Canada may be attributed in part to incident characteristics, according to the report.

Homicides involving firearms, gangs or the drug-trade, for example, have a lower probability of being cleared, while homicides may be easier to solve when the offenders are family members or otherwise well-known to the victim, the report states.

The Saint John Police Force was ranked the fifth-best overall in the country for solving crimes. The force had a clearance rate of 45.4 per cent — nearly six per cent higher than the national average.

Saint John was most successful solving its assault cases (72 per cent), and robberies (71.4 per cent). But the force was near the bottom of the list for closing sexual assault cases at 35.8 per cent, the report shows.