A judge has found former Yukon Speaker and Porter Creek Centre MLA David Laxton not guilty of sexual assault for kissing a woman in the Yukon Legislative Assembly building in 2016.
Yukon Territorial Court Justice John Faulkner delivered his verdict Oct. 2, about two months after a two-day-long trial in Whitehorse.
About a half-dozen of Laxton’s friends and family members were in the courtroom Monday, some of whom gasped as Faulkner read his verdict. Several shook Laxton’s hand and patted his shoulder afterwards before he and his wife, Leslie Goring, shared a long hug while standing between the wooden benches.
The complainant, Michelle Stimson, was also in the gallery for the verdict. She sat next to the door and left almost immediately after Faulkner declared Laxton not guilty.
The verdict marks the closing of the latest chapter in a controversial case that stemmed from an incident in February 2016, when, following an informal meeting at his office in the Legislative Assembly building, Laxton hugged and kissed Stimson twice. Whether the kisses happened was not in dispute — at the centre of the trial was whether they constituted sexual assault.
Stimson, who waived her right to a publication ban on her name and previously gave the News permission to publish it, testified during the trial that she had gone to Laxton’s office to talk about what she thought was a job opportunity but that Laxton spent most of the meeting talking about his personal life. As they were parting ways, Stimson testified, Laxton gave her two unwanted kisses and “bear hugs,” one in his office and one in a public area of the building.
Laxton, on the other hand, testified that it Stimson who had talked for most of the meeting, and that each kiss had been nothing more than a “quick peck” and part of his normal routine for saying goodbye to women friends and acquaintances. He added that he had been caught off-guard by Stimson’s allegations and has since become a “pariah,” forced to resign from his political position and shunned by former friends and political allies when the allegations emerged.
In his written reasonings, Faulkner said he found Stimson to be an “argumentative witness” who was “exceedingly reluctant to concede any point she thought might detract from her view of the incident.” In particular, Faulkner pointed out that Stimson had testified she’d gone into the meeting with “high hopes” that she would be offered a government job but left when she realized that wouldn’t be happening.
“It was perfectly clear from this that the complainant was disappointed at how the meeting had gone,” Faulkner wrote. “Yet, in cross-examination, she repeatedly denied being disappointed. A reasonable witness would have conceded the point and moved on.”
Faulkner also found several of Stimson’s other statements “unlikely,” “too much of a stretch” or “less than entirely credible,” including assertions that she’d never had any previous physical contact with Laxton, that the conversation in Laxton’s office contained sexual overtones and that a portion of her statement to the RCMP was missing.
“In sum, while I believe substantial portions of the complainant’s testimony, I remain cautious about accepting it totally,” Faulkner wrote.
Laxton’s testimony, however, was “quite credible,” Faulkner wrote, describing his recollection of the meeting with Stimson as “a more detailed and logical account.” Laxton’s claim that he and Stimson had had previous friendly, physical contact also “found significant support” in witnesses called by the defence, the judge added.
“I find that there was nothing in the conversation at any point, before, during or after these acts that was suggestive of a desire on the part of (Laxton) to become romantically involved with (Stimson),” Faulkner wrote.
“There remains doubt that what Mr. Laxton did amounted to a sexual assault. This being a criminal prosecution where the standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, Mr. Laxton is entitled to the benefit of that doubt.”
Faulkner also found Laxton not guilty of common assault, a charge the Crown had asked the judge to consider should the grounds for sexual assault not be met. He dismissed Crown attorney Amy Porteous’s assertion during the trial that the court would be declaring “open season” on women should Laxton not be convicted of common assault, writing that “anyone drawing such conclusions from this decision would be utterly and completely wrong.”
Reading from a written statement following the verdict, Laxton told reporters outside the courthouse that he was thankful for the “support and respect” he’d received from friends, family and the “Yukon community at large” during the trial.
“It has been very difficult for my wife Leslie, and she has not faltered. Together, we have persevered through this ordeal,” he said.
Laxton also thanked his legal team and declined to answer any questions, referring any further comment to his lawyer Andre Roothman.
Roothman, for his part, told reporters he was “very, very happy with the outcome” on what he said was a “very difficult case” that was “traumatic” for Laxton. He was also critical of what he described as the “absurdity” in Canadian law where a charge of sexual assault covers everything from “a touch … to a full-scale, brutal sexual assault.”
“If Mr. Laxton would have been convicted of sexual assault … somebody accessing his criminal record could have understood that he brutally raped someone without the details being disclosed, and that’s the problem I have with the system as it is,” he said.
“I just have a problem with branding everything by the same term.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org