Accused man's rights imperilled, experts say

Chief's remarks to press criticized

Friday, July 23, 2004 - Page A11

Min Chen's right to a fair trial may have been irreparably harmed by inflammatory comments made by a police official, according to legal defence experts.

Officers arrested the 21-year-old man yesterday in connection with the abduction and slaying of nine-year-old Cecilia Zhang. During the press conference announcing Mr. Chen's arrest, Peel Region Police Chief Noel Catney made statements that observers say were "foolish" and could hinder attempts to form an unbiased jury.

Chief Catney seemed unable to contain his anger during the press conference. "This is not just a murderer. This is the most despicable of criminals. This is a child murderer," he said while holding up a picture of Mr. Chen.

At one point calling Cecilia's slaying a "horrible, disgusting crime," Chief Catney later addressed Mr. Chen's legal future. "I believe the ultimate price must be paid and will be paid," he said. "We will prosecute this individual to the fullest extent of the law, trust me."

The comments likely tainted 50 to 70 per cent of prospective jurors in Toronto, said David Bayliss, a Toronto-based defence lawyer and member of the Association In Defence of The Wrongly Convicted.

"They spoke about this man as if he was already guilty -- from an investigative and legal perspective, it was extremely foolish," Mr. Bayliss said. "That's the sort of thing that really has the ability to taint a jury . . . it's hard to see how he can get a fair trial in the light of what they've done."

Mr. Bayliss said the high profile of Cecilia's death has already created a difficult trial situation for Mr. Chen -- even without Chief Catney's heated comments.

"This creates exactly the kind of public hysteria that can lead to a wrongful conviction," Mr. Bayliss added.

He pointed to the trial of Guy Paul Moran, who was wrongfully convicted for the 1984 slaying of Christine Jessop. The investigation, arrest and trial received much less media attention than Cecilia's death, but had to be moved to London because of fears a Toronto jury would be biased.

The most damaging moment of the press conference came when Chief Catney held Mr. Chen's picture aloft in front of the cameras, according to Peter Jacobsen, a media lawyer for The Globe and Mail. Mr. Jacobsen called the move "extremely inflammatory" and not fitting of a chief of police who should be trying to maintain the semblance of innocence.

"It is unusual to see a police officer become that seemingly emotional about the identification of an accused," Mr. Jacobsen said.

Mr. Bayliss said he was shocked when he first heard Chief Catney's comments.

"It's not something you expect from someone who knows their way around a courtroom," Mr. Bayliss said.