The case of a Nova Scotia man who admitted to burning the body of his girlfriend Reita Louise Jordan was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada on Monday.
Paul Trevor Calnen was convicted of second-degree murder in 2015 before a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge and jury, but the province’s Court of Appeal tossed out the murder conviction in June.
Calnen told police Jordan was in a relationship with him, which was largely fuelled by their shared addiction to crack cocaine, and that she lived with Calnen at his Timberlea residence.
Text messages presented to the court suggested she was a victim of domestic violence and wanted to move back home.
Jordan allegedly planned to leave Calnen on the night of March 18, 2013, but a fight broke out, which Calnen said became physical.
Calnen claims Jordan took a swing at him, missed, and fell down the stairs to her death.
According to Calnen’s account, he tried to resuscitate Jordan but was unsuccessful. Panicked and high on crack, instead of calling the police Calnen said he tried to dispose of the body over the following weeks, moving it a number of times, burning it twice and eventually scattering her ashes in a lake.
Calnen claims responsibility for the disposal of her body but denies involvement in her death.
A jury found Calnen guilty of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for at least 15 years. He was also sentenced to five years for indecently interfering with Jordan’s remains.
In June, a Nova Scotia Court of Appeal majority ruling overturned the conviction on the fact that the majority of the Crown’s evidence at trial was circumstantial and was mainly related to Calnen’s after-the-fact conduct, and that the trial judge failed to properly instruct the jury on the limitations of the admissibility of after-thefact evidence to infer intent — a requirement for a murder conviction. Calnen’s murder sentence was set aside, and a new trial on the lesser charge of manslaughter was also ordered.
Justice Ted Scanlan, writing for the majority, described what Calnen did to Jordan’s body as “horrific.”
But he said aside from the after-the-fact conduct “there was no evidence, physical or otherwise, that contradicted the appellant’s version of the event.”
One of the three judges on the appeal panel, Chief Justice Michael MacDonald, offered a dissenting decision, arguing that the evidence was relevant.
“Consider the extraordinary lengths the appellant went to first hide (several times) and then destroy Ms. Jordan’s body by burning it, not once but twice,” he wrote.
The split decision of the Court of Appeal gave the Crown the ability to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
On Monday, Crown lawyer Jennifer MacLellan urged the Supreme Court judges to uphold the original second-degree murder verdict.
Using arguments from Mac-Donald’s dissenting decision, MacLellan said the jury would have been clear on the limitations of the use of after-the-fact conduct as evidence, but argued that it was the extreme frantic and risk-taking nature of Calnen’s conduct — completely incinerating Jordan’s body and disposing of it numerous times — as well as the proof of domestic violence that led the jury to its verdict.
Calnen’s defence lawyer, Peter Planetta, argued that Calnen’s after-the-fact conduct was not enough to infer intent without speculation.
Planetta argued that in similar cases where the accused was convicted, there was was some evidence of the actual killing — blood splatter, clean up efforts — but in Calnen’s case, there was nothing that could point to how she died.
At one point during Planetta’s arguments, Supreme Court of Canada Justice Michael Moldaver pointed out that if Jordan was strangled, for example, there wouldn’t be any evidence, except for the body, which was destroyed.
“You’re almost telling us to send the message if you commit a murder and destroy the evidence, then you’re home free? The worst that can happen is a manslaughter?” he said. “There’s a disconnect there.”
Justice Sheila Martin added that one could argue the act of destroying the body strengthens the need for inference.
Speaking with The Chronicle Herald after the proceedings, MacLellan said after-the-fact conduct is an important legal issue and one that will benefit from further guidance from the country’s top court.
Planetta had similar thoughts.
“After-the-fact conduct has been raised so many times by the court that it’s fairly clear, but this case is kind of a different aspect of it,” he said. “That’s why it ended up here, I guess, because it’s not entirely clear.”
With files from The Canadian Press