The jury trial of Gerald Stanley for the murder of Colten Boushie marks a new development in criminal law. The trial itself was not unusual, a jury heard the evidence, deliberated, and acquitted the Saskatchewan farmer. It’s what followed the acquittal that is remarkable.
Immediately following the verdict, the most senior federal politicians, including the Prime Minister, waded into the controversy through social media, in a manner that clearly implied that the jury was wrong. The federal politicians sided with the Boushie family against the man the law says is still an innocent man.
The significance of this is only now becoming clear. Our criminal law system, with the jury at the centre, developed over the course of a thousand years.
Before Canada had a sophisticated criminal law system, justice belonged to the most powerful man, or the will of a mob. A despot could simply punish or kill a less powerful person at will, or a mob could seek vengeance when they chose to do so. Very slowly, this primitive system changed. Trial by combat, or crude methods of judging a personʼs guilt or innocence through the use of magic were early steps in a process that finally produced the system we have today. It is not a perfect system by any means, but far better than the crude “justice” it replaced.
But, there was one clear understanding that allowed this system to do its job. The politicians were to tend to their duties, and judges were to tend to theirs. Just as it was improper for a judge to comment on political matters, it was completely inappropriate for politicians to comment publicly about court cases. That is the long held convention that was so blatantly breached by the federal cabinet ministers, and the Prime Minister.
Was it done out of ignorance, or was it a clear case of virtue signalling for political points? They did not say. Does it signal the beginning of a new convention with politicians tweeting their disagreement with any court decision they donʼt like? We donʼt know at this point. Does it also give judges the go ahead to start directing their aim in their judicial decisions at political decisions they donʼt agree with? At this point, it is still unknown, but if politicians are signalling that the gloves are off, that canʼt be too far behind.
I hope these politicians simply did not think before they tweeted. If that is the case, they should publicly apologize, and vow to keep their misguided tweets to themselves.
The late night tweeter to the south of the border should give them pause.