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.