VICTORIA - The British Columbia Court of Appeal has ordered a new trial for a former scout leader who was convicted of sexually assaulting two boys during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In a ruling issued Thursday, Justice David Frankel said the conviction against John Viszlai cannot stand because of the instructions Justice Catherine Bruce, the trial judge, gave to the jury about certain evidence that arose while the jury wasn't in the courtroom, a process known as a voir dire.
That evidence referred to admissions Viszlai made in a July 11, 2007 interview with a Victoria police detective and an apology he wrote to the alleged victims following his arrest at a scout jamboree near Sechelt, B.C.
Frankel said the lower court judge told the jury it was required to accept a ruling that Viszlai's statements were "voluntary" and that the interview techniques used by a police officer "did not cross the line into improper behaviour."
"In this case, I have concluded that Mr. Viszlai was substantially prejudiced by what the trial judge said regarding her voir dire ruling," said Frankel.
He said the instructions could have confused jury members and influenced their decision that any admissions made by Viszlai during the interview were unreliable because of the way the interview was conducted.
Agreeing with Frankel were Justices Risa Levine and Christopher Hinkson.
A spokesman for the provincial government's Criminal Justice Branch and Frankel's lawyer did not return calls before publication.
According to court documents, Viszlai testified during the trial that his memory following his arrest was "sketchy," he could recall little from the interview but remembered writing the letter of apology.
The letter, he testified, was written in response to a demand made by the detective. During his testimony, Viszlai also said he appeared "shocked" in a video taken during the police interview.
Frankel said Viszlai could not explain the lapses in his memory, and during testimony denied engaging in the acts described by the two witnesses.
"He said he had 'no direct recollection of (his) statement', but accepted that the recordings of it were accurate," said Frankel.
"He said that he did not know why he said some of the things he did."
Viszlai's 27-year-long career with the provincial government ended in July 2007, after the charges against him became public, according to court documents, and he was forced to deliver newspapers and drive trucks to make ends meet.
He said he was forced to give up his volunteer activities and even lost many of his friends when they learned of the charges.
--by Keven Drews in Vancouver