The B.C. and Yukon Court of Appeal has ordered a new trial for a woman convicted of murder in 2009.
In October 2009, a jury found Alicia Ann Murphy guilty of the second-degree murder of Evangeline Billy, who drowned in the Yukon River in Whitehorse in 2008.
Murphy’s case rested heavily on the testimony of two women, her sister Tanya and Rae Lynne Gartner. Both women testified Murphy told them she killed Billy and tried to stage is as a sexual assault.
Murphy denied she killed Billy and said she never confessed.
She insists that during the two-hour window when investigators claim the murder happened she was with a drug dealer and then later at home.
The alibi came late in the trial. The drug dealer had died and police were not able to investigate.
During the trial, prosecutors called police officers to testify to their impressions of the witnesses’ statements, the lead investigator’s methodology and his working theories around the crime scene and cause of death.
While arguing the appeal, prosecutors insisted that this testimony was just part of the “narrative” of the story. But the appeals judges disagreed. They said the testimony had no probative value.
“Had the defence raised police misconduct, such as bullying or other oppressive conduct, then the interaction of the witnesses with the police would have had some relevance; but in any event it could not have been used to bolster the Crown’s case, only to answer some point taken by the defence,” the decision says.
“No such allegation arose. What the witnesses said to the police, their demeanour, emotional condition and cooperativeness, should have had nothing to do with their testimony at trial, yet it was used to make the evidence more reliable.”
Oath-helping – calling evidence during a trial with no other purpose than to bolstering a witness’s credibility – is not allowed in Canadian law.
The two women who claimed that Murphy confessed were so central to the case that this mistake cannot be ignored, the court said.
“Since there was no other overwhelming evidence of guilt, it cannot be said the verdict would necessarily have been the same despite the error.”
That same method by prosecutors, to tell a “narrative,” led to other mistakes, the appeal court said.
The lead investigator testified as to how he and his team followed proper procedures throughout the investigation.
He talked about his working theories on the crime scene and cause of death.
That included the opinion that the state and position of clothing on the victim’s body shows that a sexual assault had been staged, the court said. But opinion evidence should not have been allowed.
“The prejudice to the appellant lay in the opinion of a staged sexual assault, for the Crown argued that was something only the perpetrator and the police would have known and hence the value of the appellant’s admission was enhanced,” the court said.
No date has been set for when Murphy will next appear in court.
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