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Hitman case was prosecuted properly: Crown

HALIFAX - The Crown attorney in the case of a woman who tried to have her husband killed by a hitman says he stands by his decision not to call the intended victim to counter her claims of abuse.

Senior Crown attorney Peter Craig said after reviewing evidence at trial he determined Michael Ryan's evidence wasn't necessary to refute the duress defence of his ex-wife Nicole Ryan, and that he still believes the Crown presented enough evidence to overcome it.

Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a stay of proceedings against Nicole Ryan, essentially leaving her free. At the same time, the court granted the Crown's appeal and overturned the acquittal verdict that was reached in 2010.

Craig said Thursday the Supreme Court's decision to grant a stay is unusual and something that will be debated.

"It's unprecedented in terms of ever having been done before," he said in an interview. "I think there will be lots of discussion both academically and among reasonably informed members of the public about this decision."

The Supreme Court says Michael Ryan conducted a "reign of terror" against his ex-wife, basing its conclusions about him on the findings of fact made by the trial judge, who accepted Nicole Ryan's testimony "without question," as the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal noted.

In an interview this week, Michael Ryan denied he was abusive and questions why the Crown never gave him a chance to tell his side of the story during the original trial in Digby, N.S.

Craig said he had other considerations to make when he prosecuted the case.

"I can understand why Michael Ryan would feel he's never had the opportunity to advance his side of the story, so to speak, but that's not what the Crown looks at when determining whether to call a witness in a criminal case," he said.

"We're governed by calling evidence to support the legal issues that are raised in the case. I'm not Michael Ryan's lawyer. I determined after reviewing the evidence at trial that his evidence wasn't necessary to refute the duress defence raised by Mrs. Ryan."

Nicole Ryan's lawyer, Joel Pink, has said he has no doubt his client is telling the truth.

Craig said he remains convinced the Crown presented enough evidence to overcome Nicole Ryan's duress defence.

The court record shows, he added, that Nicole Ryan admitted to committing the offence.

Craig said the agreed statement of facts included a DVD with audio and video of Ryan meeting with an undercover RCMP officer and hiring the hitman to kill her husband.

"I think most people can appreciate that the frequency of that happening ... is extremely rare in our world," he said.

In its decision, the Supreme Court agreed with the Crown that the duress defence wasn't sufficient to acquit Ryan.

Michael Ryan says he sat in the court parking lot during the week of the trial, waiting to refute what his ex-wife was saying at the trial. He wanted to tell the judge that Nicole Ryan was under no duress from him, that they were living apart and he was in a new relationship.

He had been subpoenaed. He was on the witness list so he arrived at the courthouse on the first day of her trial, but could not sit in the courtroom due to a standard witness exclusion order.

However, Craig said there were other avenues for Michael Ryan to discuss the family relationships.

"There were some family court proceedings ongoing throughout the time the criminal matter was before the courts," he said.

"That is perhaps the place where he'd have an opportunity to tell his side of the story. More so than in criminal court."

Michael Ryan said his ex-wife did not make the same allegations of abuse during the child custody proceedings, which happened in the middle of her criminal case.

Earlier this week, he said he is coming forward now in part because the court proceedings are over, and in part for their daughter.

The 12-year-old lives with Ryan, his new wife and their 16-month-old son in Essa, Ont. Both Ryan and his wife work at CFB Borden. Ryan was granted sole custody of his daughter.

Pink said he's sure Michael Ryan is going to deny the allegations of abuse, "but the evidence is the evidence."

"The judge made a finding based on the evidence and that's what everybody should be looking at."

None of Michael Ryan's claims have been proven in court.

Craig described Michael Ryan's situation as "unusual."

However, he added, "the role of the Crown isn't to conduct a criminal trial in a way that's going to advance his position of their relationship or the public perception of it."

Craig said the Supreme Court judgment, which included a minority dissent, may raise questions among legal scholars.

"In our respectful view the most unusual feature of the case is that having found that the defence wasn't established, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a stay to the prosecution," he said.

"This has never occurred in this situation before in any decision that we're aware of.

"There was never a charter breach allegation, or that the accused's charter rights were infringed in any respect. And what's more, this remedy, the stay of proceedings, wasn't sought at trial ... the Supreme Court unilaterally came up with this remedy."

Justice Minister Ross Landry, who is also Nova Scotia's attorney general, said he has been gathering facts about the case but there are no plans for a formal review of the RCMP or the prosecution's conduct in the case.

"I don't see at this stage that there's any breach there, and that the courts and the system in this case worked," he said.

Nova Scotia's Liberal party is calling for an independent review of the RCMP's early handling of Ryan's allegations of abuse and of the public prosecution service's role in the case.

"We believe there needs to be an independent review ... so that everybody involved in this matter can have their say and the public can see exactly what took place," said Michel Samson, the party's justice critic.

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