A prosecutor agreed Wednesday that a man who has spent more than 25 years behind bars for murder should be released on bail pending an appeal that he was wrongfully convicted.
Crown counsel Michael Barrenger told a judge that there was a “reasonable concern” about whether Gerald Bernard Klassen, 60, was a victim of a miscarriage of justice when he was found guilty in March 1995 of the first-degree murder of Julie McLeod, 21, in the Merritt area.
A B.C. Supreme Court jury heard at the time that the victim was last seen alive in Klassen’s vehicle on the evening of Dec. 15, 1993, when they got some beer from a clandestine supplier.
The Crown’s theory was that after they drove to the Nicola Lake recreation area in Klassen’s vehicle, he sexually assaulted and murdered her.
Klassen testified that they had been drinking and had consensual sex before an altercation arose between them and that he pushed her and she fell to the ground and hit her head. He left her and drove home.
He denied having committed murder, but was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years. Despite having his conviction appeal dismissed, he continued to maintain his innocence.
His case came to the attention of the UBC Innocence Project, which conducts reviews of claims of wrongful conviction.
A report that was critical of the evidence of Dr. James McNaughton, the pathologist who testified at trial, led to an application to the federal justice minister for a review of the case. A review was ordered in 2018. Three other forensic reports were prepared.
Those reports called into question various aspects of McNaughton’s evidence, which had the tendency to attribute the victim’s numerous injuries to intentional force rather than accident, Barrenger told B.C. Supreme Court Justice Catherine Wedge on the second day of the bail hearing in Vancouver.
“There’s no doubt that she suffered considerable injuries, but we cannot say on the basis of forensic evidence that there’s little question that she was physically assaulted. An accident or series of accidents could have caused her injuries.”
Barrenger said he agreed with the defence that Klassen, who appeared by video link from prison, has a “good” case to be released on bail.
Ian Donaldson, a lawyer for Klassen, acknowledged that the conduct of his client on the night in question was not stellar.
“I wish he were a saint, but he ain’t. His own conduct that night can be described as loutish at best.”
But Donaldson said the verdict based on the evidence at trial was “manifestly” unsafe.
“It cannot be considered a safe verdict today,” he told the judge.
Outside court, Tamara Levy, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, said that should Klassen be released on bail, the next step is to await a decision by the federal justice minister, who could order a new trial, order the case be referred to the B.C. Court of Appeal, or dismiss the matter.
The judge is to rule on the bail application on Thursday.