The Canadian Press
Testimony from dozens of witnesses, thousands of pages of evidence and hundreds of charges to consider.
The jurors hearing the massive Norbourg fraud trial faced a daunting challenge and concluded Tuesday they couldn’t find enough common ground to reach a unanimous verdict on any of the 700-odd charges.
So on their 12th day of deliberation, the jurors effectively ended the trial of five ex-Norbourg employees accused of taking part in an elaborate scam that saw 9,200 unwitting investors bilked out of about $130 million.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Richard Wagner then dismissed the jurors after four months on the job.
The accused will return to court March 8, when the Crown will announce whether another trial is in the offing.
The Norbourg financial scandal, masterminded by Quebec money manager Vincent Lacroix, has been described by Wagner as the biggest financial fraud in Canadian history.
Lacroix was sentenced last October to 13 years in jail after quickly pleading guilty to 200 fraud-related charges in the $130-million scam.
The trial for Lacroix’s five ex-employees – Serge Beugre, Jean Cholette, Felicien Souka, Remi Deschambault and Jean Renaud – began last September.
Lawyers for the accused argued during the trial their clients had no knowledge of the fraud at Norbourg.
Jurors had to dig through 30,000 pages of evidence and listen to testimony from 65 witnesses.
They were then given the massive challenge of handing down verdicts on a total of about 700 charges of fraud, conspiracy and falsifying documents.
The jurors originally mentioned the deadlock to Wagner on Monday, but the judge asked them on Tuesday to determine whether they could find any of the accused guilty on any of the charges.
But the jury said the impasse extended to each of the accused and all of the charges and that no amount of deliberation would change that fact.
“For some of us, the evidence is very clear and we find the accused guilty, but for others there is a doubt,” the jury wrote in a note to Wagner.
One swindled investor, Jean-Guy Houle, said the jury had a monumental task in being able to digest so much documentation and so many charges.
Houle suggested that a new trial is necessary, one with fewer charges and less evidence.
“There’s no one who could have been able to go through so many documents,” Houle of Laval, Que., told The Canadian Press.
Wagner said disappointment was the sentiment of the day – not only for the jury, the accused and the lawyers — but also for the 9,200 investors.
Another of those investors said he wasn’t surprised with the outcome considering the complexity of the case.
Pierre Gravel of Sherbrooke, Que., called the case a “lawyer’s game.”
“Since the beginning of this adventure, everyone promised us all kinds of things but we’re convinced that, in the end, not one cent will be left for most of the people who lost their money,” Gravel told The Canadian Press.
The lawyers for the accused painted a bleak picture for their clients. After years of waiting and then the lengthy trial, they face the potential of another long trial while their bail conditions remain in place.
They haven’t been able to find work because they are tainted by their past employment at Norbourg, the lawyers argued.
“There’s nothing pleasant about still being charged,” said lawyer Andre Lapointe.
“I think they would have preferred to have their innocence confirmed.”
Beugre, one of the accused, took the jury’s deadlock as a sign of his own innocence.
“A group of Quebecers said today ‘this doesn’t work, these guys are innocent’,” said Beugre, a former assistant general manager at Norbourg.
“I’m proud to be a Quebecer today because they stood up and said no to the (judicial) machine and no to the police.”
The Crown declined to comment on how the case will proceed.
But one defence lawyer was quick to point out the Crown’s case was found wanting.
“The Norbourg case has been a series of errors since the beginning and the final one was in the preparation of the charge sheet, which the jury mentioned specifically,” said lawyer Richard Dube, who represents Renaud.
“I think we have to ask if there’s a pilot in the plane,” he added in a shot directed at the Crown.
Walid Hijazi, Cholette’s lawyer, says his client is stigmatized and will forever be linked to the Norbourg scandal.
@page_break@Cholette admitted to preparing falsified documents, but claimed he didn’t know what they were for or that people were being defrauded.
“It’s a partial victory in a sense,” Hijazi said. “At the beginning of the trial, he was destined for an electric chair, there was a whole social movement pushing towards the guilt of all the accused.
“Today they have not been convicted and they are not going to jail, but, that being said, they are not free and they have no feeling of closure.”
The Canadian Press