OTTAWA — A couple who had been convicted in the meningitis death of their son say they have been vindicated by the Supreme Court of Canada's decision to order a new trial.
David Stephan and his wife, Collet, were found guilty in 2016 of failing to provide the necessaries of life to 19-month-old Ezekiel.
Their trial in Lethbridge, Alta., heard evidence that they treated the boy with garlic, onion and horseradish rather than take him to a doctor. The Stephans eventually called 911 but the toddler died in hospital in 2012.
"We're grateful because this is a move in the right direction and we now have the opportunity to bring the whole truth forward,'' Stephan said outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday. "We're just so excited to have the ability to do that and to be able to uphold parental rights here in Canada.''
The Supreme Court heard arguments from the couple's lawyer and the Crown before making the unusual move of ruling immediately from the bench.
Trial judge did not properly instruct jurors, Justice says
Justice Michael Moldaver, speaking for the high court, said the trial judge did not properly instruct jurors on what would be a marked departure from reasonable behaviour "in a way that the jury could understand.''
"Accordingly we would allow the appeal, quash the convictions and order a new trial.''
Karen Molle, lawyer for the Stephans, had argued the trial judge didn't instruct the jury properly to determine whether the Stephans acted differently than other reasonable parents.
"This jury charge gave this jury little choice but to convict,'' Molle said.
Julie Morgan, representing the Crown, said the trial judge's language was generalized but it was enough for the jury to understand the case.
This jury charge gave this jury little choice but to convict.Karen Molle
"The jury would have understood what their job was,'' she told the court. "They found that the appellants did not meet the community standard, when they failed to take their child to a doctor when he had meningitis, and that endangered his life.''
Date will be set for new trial
The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the conviction last November, but because the ruling wasn't unanimous, the couple had an automatic right to take their case to the Supreme Court.
A spokeswoman for Alberta Justice said the file will return to Lethbridge Court of Queen's Bench to set a new trial date.
"The Crown has an obligation to continually assess the evidence/file against the prosecution standards of a 'reasonable likelihood of conviction' and if it is 'in the public interest to proceed' with a case,'' said spokeswoman Katherine Thompson.
Praise be to the Lord God Almighty!!David Stephan
Although David Stephan said the prospect of a new trial is "deeply uncomfortable for us,'' he rejoiced in the Supreme Court's decision.
"Praise be to the Lord God Almighty!!'' Stephan wrote on Facebook.
"Justice over the errors of our conviction has finally been served, our convictions have been overturned and we now have the opportunity to go back to trial. We take comfort in knowing that aside from the medical evidence that is still withheld or destroyed, the whole truth will be established and the tremendous lies surrounding the passing of our son will be exposed.''
Witnesses at the trial said the toddler's body was so stiff he couldn't sit in his car seat, so he had to lie on a mattress when his mother drove him from their rural Alberta home to a naturopathic clinic in Lethbridge, where she bought an echinacea mixture, which is believed to be a natural immune booster.
The trial also heard that Ezekiel's parents believed he had croup, an upper airway infection, and that he seemed to improve at times.
The Stephans never called for medical assistance until Ezekiel stopped breathing. He was taken to a local hospital and died after being transported to Calgary's Children's Hospital.
With files from Terry Pedwell