FREDERICTON – It was one of the longest murder trials in New Brunswick history, involving one of the Maritimes’ most prominent families.
Dennis Oland, a financial planner and member of the family that owns Moosehead Breweries, was convicted in December of killing his millionaire father Richard Oland based on a “house of cards” of circumstantial evidence.
On Tuesday, Oland’s lawyers will try to pull apart that house of cards, and ask the Court of Appeal to overturn the verdict.
His lawyers say the trial judge made multiple errors in his instructions to the jury, citing his decision to admit certain pieces of evidence — including some cell phone records and the results of forensic testing on Oland’s brown Hugo Boss sports jacket.
Found on that jacket: A number of minuscule blood stains and DNA that matched the profile of Richard Oland.
The elder Oland, a well-known New Brunswick businessman, was found face down in a pool of blood on the floor of his Saint John office on July 7, 2011. He had suffered 45 blunt and sharp force blows to his head, neck and hands, although no murder weapon was ever found.
“The forensic testing was not authorized by the search warrant,” defence lawyers wrote in their submission to the Court of Appeal.
They also argues the jacket was tested outside New Brunswick, which “violated the express terms of judicial orders requiring it to be detained in the custody of the (Saint John Police Force) in the City of Saint John.”
They argue the testing violated Oland’s Charter rights against unreasonable search or seizure, and all the evidence from it should have been excluded.
None of the expert witnesses could say how long the blood had been on the brown jacket or how it got there. Others testified that the killer likely would have considerable blood spatter on his or her clothes, based on the amount of spatter at the crime scene.
No blood evidence was found on any other articles of Oland’s clothing, his car, home or cell phone.
Dennis Oland had told police he was wearing a navy blazer when he went to visit his father on the day he was killed, but security camera video showed him wearing the brown jacket.
The defence also alleges the trial judge erred by admitting cell phone records which purported to show Richard Oland’s missing iPhone “pinged” off a tower east of the city at 6:44 p.m., after Dennis left his father’s office.
The defence will argue that’s a piece of evidence unconnected to any other aspect of the case.
“But because it references a cell tower in the same general direction that (Dennis Oland) travelled it invites an unfair inculpatory inference simply because ‘coincidence’ has a pejorative connotation,” the defence wrote.
Nicole O’Byrne, a law professor at the University of New Brunswick, said a trial that is based mainly on circumstantial evidence is like a “house of cards.”
“Every card that goes in builds the narrative or builds the story, and that’s what the jury is assessing with respect to credibility or what the meaning of each particular piece of evidence is in the context. If you take out a couple of those pieces of cards, the whole house of cards might come crashing down,” she said.
Throughout the trial the Crown focused on possible motives, including Dennis Oland’s serious financial difficulties and the knowledge that his father was having an affair. They suggested Oland may have killed his father in a fit of rage.
But in his own testimony, Oland downplayed his finances, and said he had not discussed his finances or the affair with his father when they met at his office to discuss research into their family history.
The defence is asking that the court allow the appeal, quash the conviction and direct a verdict of acquittal, or order a new trial.
The Crown, meanwhile, stands by its case and is asking for the appeal to be dismissed.
“Despite (Dennis Oland’s) suggestions otherwise, the case against him was not a house of cards waiting to fall, but a structure based on strong evidential foundation,” the Crown wrote in its submission.
The appeal begins Tuesday morning. Three days have been set aside to hear the arguments.
A second Oland appeal will go this month to the Supreme Court of Canada, as he seeks release pending his conviction appeal. That request has already been denied by two lower courts.
Oland has been sentenced to life in prison with no eligibility for parole for at least 10 years. According to court documents, he is currently serving his sentence at the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B.