‘Spiderman’ Has Murder Conviction Overturned

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

 

Shawn Vassel (“Vassel”) has spent seven years in prison and has recently had his conviction overturned and a new trial ordered by the Ontario Court of Appeal.

In 2011, Vassel was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of a Mississauga man during a drug deal turned robbery that occurred in 2007.

WHAT HAPPENED?

Vassel was nicknamed the “Spiderman killer” after he scaled down 11 floors of a North York apartment building in his attempt to flee the police.

Vassel was confronted by police at his mother’s apartment on the 18th floor. He exited the balcony and began rappelling from one floor to the next, finally appearing outside of the building and was eventually caught by the police after a chase on foot.

Vassel was arrested and charged for the murder of Husam Dagheim (“Dagheim”). Dagheim was shot at point-blank range in the parking lot of the Coliseum movie theatre in Mississauga during an attempted drug deal.

Vassel testified at his trial that he “risked his life” in his attempt to escape the police because he didn’t want to go to jail for a crime that he alleged he did not commit.

Vassel was sentenced to an automatic life sentence with eligibility for parole at 16 years. He has an extensive criminal record, which includes robbery, drug trafficking, and assault.

THE TRIAL

At issue at Vassel’s trial was the identity of Dagheim’s killer.

The Crown’s star witness, a former friend of Vassel, Michael Agba (“Agba”), testified that he was present during the botched drug deal and witnessed Vassel holding the loaded gun before the murder took place. During cross-examination by Vassel’s lawyer, Agba was accused of lying in order to secure a plea deal. Agba was originally charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

There were no other witnesses that could identify the shooter, including the deceased’s wife who was seated beside her husband in a minivan at the time of his death.

Vassel testified at his own trial that he was not at the crime scene. He also testified that he lent his friends his girlfriend’s rental car for the planned robbery at the drug deal. Vassel suggested that the real killer was either Agba or another friend who were both present during the drug deal.

Cellphone records were introduced as evidence to prove that Vassel was at a townhouse complex on Ridgeway Drive in Mississauga at the time of the killing.

THE APPEAL

Vassel appealed both his conviction and the period of parole fixed by the trial judge. Vassel’s counsel argued that the trial judge made several errors regarding the admissibility of evidence and his instructions to the jury.

One of the grounds of appeal argued by Vassel’s counsel was that the trial judge erred by instructing the jury to take caution and particular care with Vassel’s evidence at trial.

In a criminal trial, all parties are entitled to a properly instructed jury. An appellate court ,when assessing a judge’s jury charge, must take a functional approach to determine whether the instructions, read as a whole, provide the jury with the necessary tools to render a verdict.

The trial judge instructed the jurors to apply the same factors in assessing Vassel’s testimony as they would any other witness. Justice Tulloch specifically stated:

Mr. Vassel has given evidence that may tend to show that either Mr. David Grant or Mr. Agba was the shooter as he was not on at the scene of the crime on the night in question. You should consider that testimony of Mr. Vassel with particular care because he may have been more concerned about protecting himself than about telling the truth. Bear that in mind when you decide how much or little you can believe of and rely upon what Mr. Vassel told you about Mr. Grant’s involvement in deciding this case.

Vassel argued, on appeal, that the trial judge erred in instructing the jury about the manner in which the jury was to assess the testimony of the appellant (the person who applies to a higher court for a reversal of the decision of a lower court).

The Appeal Court agreed with Vassel’s arguments and held that the trial judge’s instruction was problematic in terms of its impact regarding Vassel’s alibi (Vassel’s primary defence).

The Court of Appeal held that this instruction to the jury by the Judge was one of several errors. The Court stated:

In these circumstances, the inclusion of this reference had the effect of adding a level of scrutiny to the alibi evidence that was unwarranted and constitutes error.

Given that the Court of Appeal determined that the trial judge made multiple errors, Vassel’s appeal was allowed, his conviction was set aside, and a new trial was ordered. Vassel can apply for bail as he awaits his retrial.

We will continue to follow developments in this case as it makes it way through the court system and will provide updates in this blog.

In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding charges laid against you or your legal rights, please contact the knowledgeable criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947. Our skilled criminal lawyers have significant experience defending a wide range of criminal charges and protecting our client’s rights. For your convenience, we offer a 24-hour telephone service. We are available when you need us most.