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Nova Scotia to independently review treatment of cyberbullying cases by police, courts

Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, had struggled emotionally for more than a year after she was sexually assaulted and a police investigation failed to file charges, her mother, Leah, says on a Facebook tribute page.

The man in charge of investigating how police and prosecutors handled the case of bullied Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons will determine if more can be done to help the justice system cope with troubling issues stemming from social media.

"Just as the technology is moving quickly and society is moving quickly, the police and prosecution service are obliged to respond and to keep up," said Murray Segal, the former Ontario deputy attorney general and chief prosecutor, appointed by the Nova Scotia government this week to conduct the independent review.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said he believes the Parsons case may break new ground in terms of how the justice system handles alleged sexual assault cases that play out online.

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It took more than a year and a half for police to lay charges in connection with the 17-year-old who died in April several days after a suicide attempt. Her family alleged that she was raped by four boys at a house party in November, 2011. A cellphone picture of the alleged assault was circulated around her school, and she was humiliated and bullied online. Although she went to police, no charges were laid and the investigation was dropped.

According to his terms of reference, Mr. Segal is to "determine whether the policies, procedures and guidelines for police regarding investigations of allegations of sexual assault, child pornography, and other offences related to cyber-bullying are adequate and appropriate."

"When it comes to the criminal justice system," Mr. Segal said, "there is a question of ensuring that the police and prosecution service have the ability and tools to deal with it, and deal with it in an expeditious, sensitive and thoughtful manner."

Ms. Parsons' death provoked a huge outcry, prompting police to reopen their investigation after saying they had received new information. Child-pornography charges were laid last week. Some, including Rethaeh's father, are still questioning why sexual-assault charges were not laid.

Mr. Segal told The Globe that he would be looking south of the border to other cities that have had similar tragedies to see what lessons were learned and if any improvements were made to their justice system. On the surface at least, the Parsons case is similar to the one in Steubenville, Ohio, in which a photo of a naked girl being carried by two men was posted on Instagram. It resulted in two high-school football players being convicted of rape from a case built on text messages and cellphone photos.

Meanwhile, outside the Halifax youth court Thursday, where the two teenage boys charged in connection with the Parsons case made their first appearance, one of the defence lawyers accused the public and media of trying and convicting his client on the Internet.

"It appears that individuals on the Internet and certain members of the media conducted their own one-sided trial in relation to this matter," charged defence lawyer Josh Arnold. "No due process was given. The matter is now before the courts properly in that it will be dealt with hopefully properly and fairly.… No one should be tried and convicted without having a hearing, without receiving disclosure, without having a fair trial."

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The two 18-year-olds will appear again on Sept. 19. One is charged with two counts of distributing child pornography, the other with distributing and making child pornography. They are appearing in youth court so they cannot be identified.

A Crown Attorney from Ontario, Alexander Smith, is prosecuting the case after Nova Scotia's Public Prosecution Service wanted to avoid any hint of conflict. It was the PPS that consulted with police on the original Parsons investigation that is now being reviewed by Mr. Segal.

Nova Scotia Attorney-General Ross Landry appointed Mr. Segal – also wanting, in part, to tap someone from outside the region to avoid any taint.

Although this is a review, Mr. Segal says it has a "forward-looking perspective" and he is hoping some good will come out of this. He is to report by April 1 and to make recommendations. He does not have the power to compel anyone to speak to him, but says he has assurances that the police and prosecution service will be "totally co-operative."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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