22 February 2010

The Elizabeth Towers Fire Inquiry – The Question of Justification


Paragraph (1) (b) of the Terms of Reference of this Commission of Enquiry requires me to consider and report upon the justification, if any, for the release, transmission, duplication, delivery and publication of the two reports.

According to the evidence it appears that Pike concluded [not a quote in original]
(a) that the investigation into the cause of the fire at Elizabeth Towers had provided enough evidence to justify the laying of a charge of arson against the Honourable Dr. Thomas Farrell, but 
(b) that the charge would not be laid because Farrell was a member of the Cabinet of the Province of Newfoundland.
Pike's conclusions appear to have a certain emotional basis.  He had been taken off the investigation because of his indiscretion in discussing it with the Premier's secretary and he was upset on that account.  He appeared, too, to have the idea that he was being persecuted, as shown in his allegation to William Rowe that "Alec Hickman (the Minister of Justice) was out to get him".  It appears to me that at the time Pike was not in that emotional state which would enable him to take a completely objective view of the investigation.  Indeed, his approach brings into question his usefulness as an investigating officer.

The conclusions which Pike arrived at were not of such substance as to justify his releasing the reports.  Pike based his action on two reports.  He knew that the investigation was continuing.  He also knew or expected that charges were going to be laid against Dr. Farrell.  After all, that was the message which he apparently wanted to pass to the Premier.

Throughout the period leading up to the laying of charges against Dr. Farrell on October 16th, 1978 there was emphasis placed on what appeared to be unwarranted delay in the laying of the charges. In any given case, the answer to the question of whether there is delay depends upon that particular case and upon such variable factors as the nature of the alleged offence, the existence and extent of the evidence which shows that an offence was committed, the existence and extent of the evidence which indicates the perpetrator. The law officers of the Crown who are responsible for conducting a prosecution must go beyond the question of whether they can establish a prime facie case.  They must consider whether they can show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  Belief in the guilt of an accused is one thing.  Proving it beyond a reasonable doubt' is another.  Therein lies a difference between the attitudes which police investigators and crown prosecutors may adopt.

There is no doubt that criminal investigations should be concluded as quickly as possible and charges should be laid without delay, but the prosecutor must be concerned with proof that will meet the tests applied under the rules of evidence and of criminal procedure.  In the investigation of the Elizabeth Towers fire, the Crown officers, who had a better perspective than Pike could have, who were more competent professionally to assess the evidence from the point of view of laying charges, considered that there were matters not dealt with adequately in the first two reports.  They sought and received two further reports and then laid a charge against Dr. Farrell.

Pike had no real grounds for concluding that charges would not be laid against Dr. Farrell,  He did not produce any evidence of substance that would support his conclusion beyond the casual conversation which he had with Kelly.  In reality, Macaulay, as I have already shown, indicated on or about July 3lst that he wanted to lay charges against Dr. Farrell.  That suggests to me that in the Department of Justice there was a wish to get on with the matter rather than to procrastinate. In this regard I must note that in answer to a direct question Macaulay stated at the Enquiry that the Minister of Justice had not interfered with the work of the Departmental officers dealing with the investigation, that there had not been any political interference.

There was no evidence that any attempt was made to protect Dr. Farrell from prosecution.  Pike's allegation that there was a "cover-up" was a product of his own imagination and suspicions.  There was no justification for his releasing the police reports to William Rowe or to any other person.

If there was no justification for Pike's actions there was still less for those of William Rowe.  He was dissatisfied with what appeared to be delays in the completion of the investigation and with the absence of any prosecutions.  He had concluded that the investigation might go on and on but that nothing would ever develop from it, that there would never be any prosecution.  He had no solid foundation for that conclusion and no substantive evidence.  As in the case of Pike's conclusions, they did not coincide with what was actually happening behind the scenes, that is, that the Deputy Minister of Justice had been pressing to bring the investigation to the point where charges might be laid,  Rowe seems to have allowed himself to become the victim of rumour or speculation, For example, at one point in his evidence he said:
"... Talking to people casually around, the impression that I arrived at was that there was going to be an on-going investigation forever and ever and ever in the case."
As a person in public life, he should have been sensitive to the fact that others will exaggerate descriptions of what public figures do, that there is a popular belief that prominant [sic] citizens are above the law.  Added to that, he recognized that Pike, who alleged that a "cover-up" was going on, was visibly disturbed when they met.  From his description of Pike's condition, which I have already related, he should certainly have been put on his caution and should not have jeopardized his own reputation by dealing with Pike as he did.  No matter how William Rowe may attempt to justify his conduct in accepting and releasing the reports he did not provide any grounds on which to justify his conduct.

I am not ignoring the concern which Rowe expressed about the safety of tenants in the Elizabeth Towers Apartments.  I would not for one moment doubt that concern.  Indeed, I would go beyond expressing concern about the origin of one fire and I would want to go further than simply wanting to know who, if anybody, caused it.

A fire in any building occupied by a large number of tenants raises many questions which can go to such basic considerations as design and materials used. To what extent have fire resistant materials been used?
Can the spread of fire or smoke or both be controlled or diminished?  What alarm systems exist?  What emergency exits are there?  What fire fighting equipment is on the premises?  Do residents know what to do in the event of fire or an alarm of fire?  What security is maintained on the building? How efficiently can municipal fire fighters work in dealing with a fire?  I am not suggesting that the answers to these and other possible questions would reflect poorly on the operation of the Elizabeth Towers but I do say that anxiety arising out of the fire on April 26th, 1978 should extend to those concerns if any investigation is to be of greatest benefit to the residents.  Indeed, a complete investigation directed at such questions as those I have raised may result in improvements in safety features in the building in question and in the construction and use of other buildings as well.

Related to the question of justification is one other direction given to me by paragraph (l)(c) of my Terms of Reference.  It requires me to enquire into and report upon what should have been done with copies of the reports by those into whose possession they came and what action, if any, should be taken against them.
When the reports were released the investigation into the fire had not been completed, notwithstanding any opinion which Pike may have had to the contrary. At the same time, it was likely that a criminal charge would be laid against Dr. Farrell.

While a suspected crime is being investigated the information which the police have gathered should be treated as confidential in the interest of the investigation itself and in the interest of suspects. Improper release of information could alert a suspect, enabling him to tamper with evidence or to provide himself with a defence or otherwise frustrate the investigation.  Conversely, release of information from an incompleted investigation could implicate a suspect who might later in the investigation be shown to be innocent.  As a matter of fact, in the investigation of the Elisabeth Towers fire it appears that there was one person who was suspected of some involvement but who was cleared of suspicion during the investigation.

When a role is changed, so that a suspect becomes an accused, he should then know what case he has to answer at his trial.  If he has an election and elects to be tried by a judge sitting with a jury, his right to a fair trial should not be prejudiced by the release of information which might not be admissible as evidence at his trial.  In other words, he should not be pre-judged by public opinion.  He is entitled to a trial by a jury whose members have not already been influenced by what they have heard or read in news reports.  There is today a great deal of emphasis on "the right to know" but the right to a fair trial is equally great, if not greater, for it deals with liberty of the subject.  Insofar as a trial is concerned, the "right to know" is recognized in the requirements that trials be public.

In the release of the reports of the Elizabeth Towers investigation, Pike conducted himself in a manner unbecoming to a member of a police force. He was reduced in rank from a detective sergeant to a patrol sergeant, with a consequent reduction in the rate of salary.  He considered that he was "severely punished", to use his own description of the consequences of his actions, but in my view he was treated leniently. His conduct would have justified dismissal.

Only one factor would influence my view as to the action which should have been taken against Pike, and that is the fact that at the present time no penalties appear to exist which could be imposed on William Rowe who caused the reports to be distributed. Pike's conduct was inexcusable but Rowe's conduct was equally inexcusable.  When he received the reports from Pike he should have turned them over to the Chief of Police, as some of the news editors did. If he was not prepared to do that, the least he might have done was point out to Pike the impropriety of what he was doing and refuse to accept the reports.

I refrain from commenting further on what action, if any, might be taken insofar as publication of the reports or any portion of them is concerned because I understand that civil actions may be pending in respect of some of those to whom information was given.

-srbp-

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