Why everyone should be worried that Wally Oppal intervened in a criminal case

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The criminal-justice branch has revealed that a former attorney general overruled a decision by Crown counsel in a high-profile murder prosecution.

On February 10, 2009, then-attorney general Wally Oppal wrote a letter to Robert Gillen—then the assistant deputy attorney general overseeing the branch—directing him to hire a special prosecutor in the Mukhtiar Singh Panghali case.

Panghali, a former teacher, was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his wife Manjit, a popular Surrey teacher. An outside lawyer, Dennis Murray, prosecuted the case.

Crown counsel had planned to enter into a plea bargain whereby Panghali would plead guilty to manslaughter.

According to Oppal's letter, Crown counsel believed there were viable defences available to Panghali to raise a "reasonable doubt in relation to proof of intent for second degree murder".

"The Branch has determined that a plea to the lesser included offence of manslaughter be accepted, as this would be the likely outcome of the case, and would constitute a fair and principled resolution to this case," Oppal wrote. "The Branch intends to seek a range of incarceration commensurate with 'near murder' case law involving manslaughter sentences, commencing at 12 years."

Oppal, however, stated in the letter to Gillen that he disagreed.

"It is my opinion that there remains a strong, solid case of substance to present to the Court, and that there continues to be a substantial likelihood of conviction on the charge of second degree murder," Oppal wrote. "It is also my opinion that it is in the public interest to proceed with the prosecution on the charge of second degree murder." 

As a B.C. Supreme Court justice, Oppal presided over several murder trials.

However, British Columbians have repeatedly been told by attorneys general over the years that there is no political interference in how Crown counsel deals with criminal cases.

This letter from Oppal proves that this isn't the case.

A B.C. attorney general did meddle in a very serious criminal case just three months before a provincial election.

Given the gravity of the crime, some will approve Oppal's decision to intervene. Panghali was convicted of second-degree murder, and this was upheld by the B.C.Court of Appeal.

But he could have just as easily been acquitted, in which case there would be howls of outrage heard across the country.

One thing is certain. We can never believe B.C. politicians again when they say that the criminal-justice branch operates free of political interference.

Oppal has proven that with his letter.

The next time a high-profile case comes forward—whether it's involving an animal-rights activist, direct action to stop the Enbridge pipeline, or the murder of someone well-known in the community—don't discount the possibility of a future B.C. attorney general jumping in to overrule a prosecutor's decision.

Let's hope that if this occurs again, we don't have to wait nearly four years before learning about it.

Comments (8) Add New Comment
Barbara Neff
Much as it pains me to say it, I have to say that Mr. Oppel made the right decision in this case. Any one who believes there is no political interference in our courts has to be totally naive. Otherwise why would the kidnappers of Jimmy Pattison daughter or the kidnappers of the young man in Southlands (name long forgotten) be punished so severely. Obviously money and power influence our legal system.
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Dennis Shewchuk
It's good he intervened..Too many cases are plea bargained away.The bad guys get slapped on the wrist instead of slammed..This murderous man deserves to get the max..Yes the crown possibly could of lost..but better to put the piece of sh&t through hell.. What else is the job of the Attorney General if not to correct his subordinates...
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What?
How is that "political interference?" Was Panghali campaigning for the NDP?
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dk
I wonder if this happens when it's a member of the RCMP or another police force. It's no wonder some act the way they do when they know they won't be held accountable to the full letter of the law.
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Ray
I say congratulations to Wally Opal for stepping up to the plate and over rulling the crown prosecutors. Too many times have serious ofenders pleaded Guilty to Manslaughter, and got off with no consequences. In this case, for crown to even contemplate down grading to manslaughter just to save a trial, is incomprehendable, and to think he would be out in
less than 3 years.
If this is what it takes on the occasions that crown has there
head up there *(%^^%$%, thank god we have someone to recomend they reconsider!!!!!!!!!
Ray
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sleepswithangels
It's so good to see the Republican Party has its sock puppets primed and ready to attempt to prolong US control over BC. Nothing like camping out at the Straight in order to spew odious right wing sentiment, that panders to motherhood issues, in advance of a crucial election.
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cuz
Hey sleepy, why is it that anytime someone disagrees with the leftwing nutjobs they are considered Republicans or trolls. I laugh everytime I hear people like Charlie & co. talk about how they know what is good for Canada, and how no one supports Harper - YET HE IS STILL IN OFFICE. Seems like the lefties just can't get their act together. I'm sure Charlie wrote this article hoping for yet another outburst of righteous indignation from the left, but yet again the Straight is on the wrong side of the fence.
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MarkFornataro
Wally Oppal chose to take a role as a gunshot victim in a movie about a serial killer while heading the inquiry dealing with serial killer Robert Pickton. He also chose to head that inquiry although he had been Attorney General of BC for a part of the period under scrutiny by the inquiry and, in addition, prior to heading that inquiry complained to CBC's Early Edition that he thought such an inquiry might be a waste of time. Two examples of poor judgement in my opinion. Although I am happy to see Mr Panghali get the book thrown at him the point is, do you want to set a precedent of saying 'its okay to let the AG have his way' on other issues. Because I can imagine it could enter the realm of conflict of interest in certain cases. BC Rail?
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Wally Oppal's letter to Robert Gillen

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