“There is reasonable doubt here,” says Dr. Michael Shkrum, head of forensic pathology at the Health Sciences Centre in London, Ont., who was one of the people who took another look at some of the evidence used in Delisle’s trial.
Watch "Murder and the Judge" on CBC's the fifth estate on Friday, March 20 at 9 p.m.
Delisle, now 79, has served three years of his life sentence in prison for the murder of his wife, Nicole Rainville.
On Nov. 12, 2009, the 71-year-old Rainville was found in her Quebec City home lying on the couch with a bullet in her head.
In an exclusive interview with the fifth estate and Radio-Canada's Enquete program, Delisle said that while he did not kill his wife, he did provide her with the gun she used to shoot herself.
Rainville had fallen into depression after a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side, followed by a broken hip. According to Delisle and his family, she had talked repeatedly about wanting to kill herself.
In a six-week trial in 2012, the Crown focused on the former judge's long-time affair with his secretary – they claimed if ever Delisle divorced his wife, he’d lose more than one million dollars in a settlement. Delisle was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
But forensic and ballistic experts who studied Delisle’s case file for a joint investigation by the fifth estate and Enquete conclude that the bullet trajectory, entry wound and gunshot residue all indicate suicide, not murder.
The gun's angle
During Delisle’s trial, the Crown claimed the shot that killed Rainville was fired at an angle of 30 degrees, which would be consistent with someone standing above her holding a gun to the front of her head.
But Dr. Peter Markesteyn, the former chief medical examiner in Manitoba and a forensic pathologist who has worked on cases involving the wrongfully convicted, says a shot fired at a 30-degree angle would have left burn marks on the victim’s skin and hair. None were found on Rainville.
Because there were no marks or residue left outside Rainville’s skull, Markesteyn concluded that the gun would have had to be held at a 90-degree angle to the side of her head, which is consistent with suicide.
“There is no doubt, from a scientific point of view, that this was a perpendicular-held gun at the time of firing,” Markesteyn told the fifth estate.
The bullet trajectory
The Crown also claimed that the fact that the bullet was found lodged in the back of Rainville’s head meant that it must have gone in a straight line, fired from a 30-degree angle at the front of her head – again, a finding consistent with murder.
But this analysis is disputed by Liam Hendrikse, a ballistics and firearms specialist recognized by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands.
Hendrikse says that X-rays he examined showed that as the bullet travelled through Rainville’s brain, it left what he called a "lead snowstorm" – a trail of projectile fragments. He says the lead trail is a more accurate way of tracing a bullet’s path than simply drawing a line from the position of the gun to the bullet's final resting place in the skull.
According to Hendrikse, the bullet went from the left temple, ricocheted off the right side of the head, and ended up at the back of the head, a trajectory consistent with a gunshot to the left temple at 90 degrees – that is, by Rainville.
Gun powder burns
The final piece of evidence in the Delisle trial was the black powder burn found on Rainville’s left hand. The Crown claimed it was a result of her trying to defend herself from her alleged killer. The defence claimed it was a result of Rainville firing the gun herself.
The fifth estate took this evidence to be interpreted by Dr. Michael Shkrum at the Health Sciences Centre in London.
Shkrum says the Crown got it wrong — if Rainville had in fact obtained the burns in self-defence, they would have been on a different part of her palm.
These burns, he says, in this pattern, indicate she was likely holding the gun herself.
“All the testing has been based on this 30-degree angle, and from what I've seen of the materials that were provided to me, they couldn't seem to replicate the deposition of the soot or powder residues on the deceased's hand.”
Delisle’s case has been taken up by Toronto lawyer James Lockyer, whose high-profile work has helped exonerate more than 20 people wrongly convicted of serious crimes.
Convicted prisoners in Canada who have lost all their legal appeals are allowed by law to make a direct appeal to the federal justice minister, asking the government to re-open the case.
Lockyer told the fifth estate Delisle “was convicted on what I would consider to be very poor forensic evidence, and that’s a common cause of wrongful convictions.”
Charles Levasseur, a Crown attorney on the original case, remains convinced Delisle pulled the trigger, based largely on the fact that Delisle had a mistress at the time, and that his wife was ailing.
“He didn’t want to have this… burden on his back in his retirement. He wanted to travel. So that’s my theory, and that’s what I think, and that’s what I still think.”