ST. THOMAS – For a whole year, police obstruction charges have hung like a Lake Erie storm cloud over the Aylmer Express.
And, for a whole year, the OPP and the Elgin County Crown attorney had time to disclose to the defence the materials on which they were relying in their case against the small-town newspaper’s publisher John Hueston, 67, and his son, reporter and editor Brett Hueston, 33, related to what the Crown says happened between the Huestons and the OPP along Springfield Line last June.
So, there was both shock and frustration when the Crown produced new disclosure, minutes before the Huestons’ Ontario Court of Justice trial was supposed to start, and it wasn’t something minor.
The investigating officer’s notes hadn’t been handed over to the defence.
And, assistant Crown attorney Celia Jutras told Justice Glen Donald there’s still more to come, including notes from a fire chief and a police media relations officer.
“I’m not a happy camper today,” defence lawyer Gordon Cudmore said to Donald in the packed courtroom before agreeing to adjourning the case to Aug. 15.
Neither were the Huestons.
“It’s been eating the family up. It’s been eating the business up. It’s a problem in front of us,” said John Hueston.
“We’re paying on this everyday and now we’ve got to go through until August.”
It’s still a head-scratcher how such critical materials couldn’t make it to the defence before the trial, especially in light of the pending constitutional argument over press freedom and the support of the Huestons by journalism organizations across the country.
The Huestons were charged June 24, 2017, after what should have been routine reportage of a police investigation. The pair drove out to the Lake Erie shoreline after the Elgin OPP sent out a press release about a car that had gone off the cliff at the end of road east of Port Bruce.
There were rumours of a police pursuit and the Huestons went to the area primarily to interview the only homeowner on the road and to take photos.
There was a ‘road closed’ sign at the mouth of the road that didn’t completely cover the opening, but no OPP officer posted there. The Huestons went around the sign and headed down the road, parking no closer than 50 metres from the crime scene, got out of their car and took photos, they said.
An officer approached them, there was a discussion about where they could stand and after some discussion, the Huestons said they wanted to see the officer’s supervisor. After another discussion, the supervisor ordered they be arrested.
They were placed in separate cruisers in handcuffs – even after knowing John Hueston wears a pacemaker – before they were taken to the Elgin OPP detachment, held for three hours and charged.
Later, they found out the car, with a body inside, was being removed from the water when they had arrived. It was determined the incident was a suicide and the Special Investigations Unit cleared an officer of any wrongdoing.
Cudmore is planning a constitutional argument as part of the trial. “Freedom of the press is a very live issue,” Cudmore told Donald.
With kindness, once court was over, Cudmore said the Crown’s surprise disclosure of the investigating officer’s notes was “very unusual” and “a bureaucratic mess-up.”
“It’s very unusual,” said Cudmore particularly on what seems to be a straight-forward case and ironically a trial where the main issue is the public’s right to know and understand what’s going on.
“The public has the right for the free press to be at various scenes,” he said. “The press does not have a right to obstruct, but they sure have a right to be there and to report and to keep the public informed of what is going on and the police should be transparent. That’s the foundation of a democracy.”
“We say and maintain throughout there was no obstruction whatsoever, that they were just there doing their jobs as part of a free press.”
Brett Hueston said the adjournment is “just highly disappointing. I wanted this over today. I don’t want to live with this through the summer.
“We’ve got a lot of other things we do for the business, the community and our family. This is not what we need,” he said.
His worry goes beyond their interaction with the OPP, but to other cases they’ve heard of in the country. They are fortunate, he said, because their commercial printing operation has helped them afford a defence.
“It’s really troubling and that’s what keeps me up at night, not what we did, because we didn’t do anything wrong, but what’s happening to people like us might work for smaller places that can’t afford to fight these cases in court. “
“We have to fight this on principle, if nothing else.”
John Hueston said he has been humbled by the support both locally and across the country.
“There really has been something that’s been positive out of this and I will never forget the words of support we’ve had. It’s been great.”
Both the Huestons said they have been to crime scenes with the same “road closed” sign since last June with no issues, compared to what happened when they were charged.
“It was adversarial…. It was very aggressive, when we had no idea,” John Hueston said.
Their cameras were confiscated by the police and weren’t made available to them for nine months. The two photos John Hueston was able to get, he said, “very poor shots …a strip of cliff bank that is far in the distance and I just took it as a matter of record.”
As for the new disclosure of police notes, “I would have figured that that would have been the very first thing that would have been made available,” he said.
At the brief hearing, the Crown said it would be calling three police witnesses at that trial. What Cudmore said he wants are acquittals and recognition of the fundamental rights of the press in democracy.
“These weren’t curious tourists who wanted to see the accident scene on the 401, these were legitimate reporters doing their job,” he said.
“And I think that has to be recognized and acknowledged in this society, otherwise we’re toast.”http://lfpress.com/news/local-news/surp ... ists-trial