Nova Scotia’s highest court will begin hearing arguments today in one of the highest-profile murder cases in the province in recent years: the killing of Dalhousie University student Taylor Samson by fellow student William Sandeson.
Samson, 22, was killed in August 2015 in an apartment in south-end Halifax. His body has never been found.
A jury convicted Sandeson, 27, of first-degree murder following an eight week trial that ended in June 2017.
Two days have been set aside in the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal for arguments, which will cover a wide range of issues arising from the former medical student’s trial.
One of the biggest issues surrounds retired RCMP Sgt. Bruce Webb, who worked for a private detective agency hired by Sandeson’s lawyers to help them prepare for the trial.
In the course of his work, Webb interviewed two men — Justin Blades and Pookiel McCabe — who initially told police they didn’t see or hear anything the night Samson was killed.
But when Webb pressed them, the men changed their story.
They told Webb they saw a bleeding man slumped over the kitchen table in Sandeson’s apartment. Webb subsequently told a police officer that investigators should requestion Blades and McCabe, which they did.
It wasn’t until in the middle of the trial that Sandeson’s lawyers realized that Webb was the reason police reinterviewed Blades and McCabe.
The lawyers asked for a mistrial on the grounds that Webb’s actions breached Sandeson’s privileges as a client, but Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Josh Arnold refused.
Sandeson has subsequently launched a civil lawsuit against Webb and the detective agency he was working for.
Sandeson’s appeal also claims that his charter rights were violated by police throughout their investigation.
In their initial questioning, police were treating Samson as a missing persons case and Sandeson was a potential witness.
He voluntarily handed over his phone and allowed police to extract text messages from it. Those messages included an exchange with Samson on the night of the murder.
The Crown argued that Sandeson kept sending messages to Samson’s phone, even after the killing, to cover his tracks.
Sandeson would give six different stories to police about the circumstances surrounding Samson’s disappearance, beginning with a claim — later disproven — that he and Samson never met that night.
Sandeson continued to shift his stories to fit what he knew of the police investigation.
The changes and inconsistencies in his accounts aroused police suspicion and they quickly started thinking of Samson’s disappearance as a homicide and Sandeson as a suspect.
In his appeal, Sandeson’s lawyer argues that police failed to properly caution him about his rights as their view of him changed.
Apartment searched without warrant
Another issue likely to be debated at the hearing is the police’s search of Sandeson’s apartment.
Investigators conducted the search without a warrant, claiming there were exigent circumstances which justified their actions.
Police said that at the time of the search, they were worried that Samson was being held hostage as part of a drug deal gone bad.
Video retrieved from a security camera mounted in the hallway outside Sandeson’s apartment showed Samson arriving with a large bag that contained marijuana. There is no video showing Samson leaving.
Panel to reserve decision
A search of the Sandeson family farm near Truro, N.S., recovered objects which had Samson’s DNA on them.
The farm is referenced in another aspect of the case that Sandeson has objected to.
In a bail hearing long before his trial got underway, the Crown presented text messages extracted from his phone that included an exchange from a few weeks before the murder.
In those texts, Sandeson told another woman he suspected his girlfriend might be cheating on him. Sandeson said if true, he would dismember her and dispose of her remains on the farm.
In his first, hand-written notice of appeal filed from prison, Sandeson said the media should not have been allowed to report those details, even after the jury was sequestered.
A three-member panel will hear arguments from the Crown and Toronto lawyer Ian Smith, who is representing Sandeson. The panel is expected to reserve its decision.
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