Updated: Accused senior passes one year in custody with little progress in 30-year cold case

A Kingston Police vehicle leaves the Wellington Street court house in downtown Kingston. Kingstonist file photo.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since it was first published on February 9 at 5:43 p.m. Please see the bottom of the article for the most recently updated information.

Content warning: This article refers to violence, sexual assault, forcible confinement, and other crimes that readers may find disturbing.

An 81-year-old man has now been in provincial custody for over a year as he awaits trial, without even having a bail hearing.

Lawrence Serson was arrested by the Kingston Police Major Crime Unit on January 18, 2023, in Hamilton, Ontario. Since his information was sworn on January 19, 2023, he has appeared in court at least 40 times without the case moving forward.

Serson is accused of a vicious crime that took place 30 years ago. In a media release dated Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, Kingston Police said that, in 1994, at the age of 52, Serson was residing in Kingston when he unlawfully entered the residence of a 44-year-old female who lived alone.

“After Serson gained entry into the victim’s apartment, he viciously attacked her while she slept. Serson overpowered the victim by confining her before violently sexually assaulting her,” police stated, adding, “Further forensic evidence/DNA was located and this DNA assisted the Major Crime Unit in identifying Serson and ultimately in solving this heinous incident.”

Serson’s appearance via video on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, before Justice of the Peace David Auger’s Ontario Court of Justice Kingston bail court, was similar to previous ones. He sat in the provided chair wearing orange coveralls and looking confused, his hair and long white beard unkempt.

This time, Serson was represented by yet another paralegal “acting as agent” for defence attorney Mustafa Sheikh of Toronto. She asked for another week’s adjournment on Sheikh’s behalf, reading from notes that “they were planning to file surety declarations with the Crown” but were advised the potential sureties had criminal records. “So Counsel will need some more time to find further sureties.” In Ontario, a surety is defined as being a person who legally pledges “to supervise an accused person while they are out on bail,” as well as “an amount of money to the court if the accused doesn’t follow one or more of the bail conditions or doesn’t show up to court when required,” according to Legal Aid Ontario.

As yet, Serson’s lawyer himself has made no appearances in court, instead sending one paralegal after another on his behalf.

Serson, who has demonstrated in past appearances that he has difficulty understanding what is being said over the background noise, spoke up in a croaking voice, “May I speak with that young lady [the paralegal] for a minute?”

Auger answered, “No — sorry, sir, we are no longer doing phone calls or breakout rooms,” and bid him to have a good day. This is a new development, as online appearances are often interrupted by lawyers communicating privately with their clients either in a Zoom breakout room or via phone call, depending on the capabilities of the institution.

Auger ordered the matter to return again in one week “for a bail plan” — a familiar refrain in Serson’s multiple appearances before the Justices of the Peace serving Kingston.

Serson first appeared in court in Kingston on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, when he was charged with: 

  • sexual assault causing bodily harm,
  • breaking and entering with intent,
  • assault,
  • uttering threats, and
  • forcible confinement.

The 81-year-old attended Justice of the Peace Ruth Campbell’s virtual bail court over the phone from Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario, on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023.

After Serson had appeared tearfully without a lawyer earlier in December, Campbell instructed duty counsel to help Serson obtain legal representation, and Sheikh took on Serson’s case.

Then, during the December 29, 2023 appearance, Crown attorney Shawn Eagles asked if he could address the court on record and pointed out that, since Serson’s arrest in January 2023, the matter had been going on for nearly a year, with an earlier defence team or teams looking for medical evidence to assist in a bail hearing. Eagles alluded to previous issues that had come to a head “earlier this month [December]” and said that, now, with this new counsel appearing on Serson’s behalf, the case seemed to be “back to square one.”

“So I think my friend is late on board,” Eagles said at that time, referring to the agent. He acknowledged it was not the new attorney’s fault, but he wanted the new defence team to be aware of numerous previous delays by Serson’s defence, emphasizing that “this has to be kept on a fairly short leash.”

The number of delays came to light when Justice Campbell confirmed that December 29, 2023 marked Serson’s 37th court appearance, and he had not yet had a bail hearing. 

The right to a trial within a reasonable time is enshrined in provision 11(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A bail hearing is only the first step in the progression of a criminal case. It is held to determine whether an accused person should be kept in jail or allowed to go back to the community while the case is in criminal court.

Provision 11(b) is addressed in the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark decision R. v. Jordan,  which recognized that “trials within a reasonable time are an essential part of our criminal justice system’s commitment to treating presumptively innocent accused persons in a manner that protects their interests in liberty, security of the person, and a fair trial.”

The Jordan rule set time limits for the completion of criminal cases, where there are no exceptional circumstances: 18 months for cases in the Ontario Court of Justice and 30 months for cases in the Superior Court of Justice.

Constitutional scholars agree that long delays cause harm to both the accused and victims and damage society’s confidence in the system. If a case is excessively delayed according to the Jordan limitations, it can be dismissed, leaving the victim without justice. An accused person who languishes in custody can suffer mental and physical harm, even if found guilty, but especially if they are innocent of the crime. The public interest in seeing justice administered quickly can lead to less confidence in the justice system if a trial is delayed or dismissed, harming society as a whole, according to studies on the Jordan rule.

Kingstonist will continue to provide coverage of this case as it progresses.

Update (Friday, Feb. 16, 2024):

Lawrence Serson appeared in bail court yet again via video from the Central East Correctional Centre (CECC) at 2:20 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, as directed. Once again, his case was before Justice of the Peace Ruth Campbell.

Another paralegal appeared on behalf of Serson’s counsel, Mustafa Sheikh, to say that Sheikh had “lost contact with the potential surety but managed to contact them again yesterday, February 15.” 

The paralegal said Sheikh would come up with the bail plan and file the surety declaration. She also noted that Sheikh’s office had been trying to get documents from Serson’s previous lawyer, but had not received a response.

“If agreeable, may we return February 23?” she asked.

There was a great deal of background noise on the line and Serson indicated that he couldn’t hear the paralegal. The Justice of the Peace explained Serson’s hearing impairment and asked the paralegal to repeat herself.

Serson still could not understand and asked to speak to the paralegal directly, but he was told his lawyer would need to call him. Serson again said he couldn’t understand and the paralegal attempted to speak to him directly, but Campbell cut her off, saying she was not to speak directly to the client and must speak through the Justice of the Peace.

The Justice of the Peace explained to Serson again that his lawyer would need to call him at the institution and asked for a return on February 23, 2024, for an update on the bail plan.

Serson grew frustrated, saying, “I gotta have a few rights. Gee whiz, I don’t get this,” and muttered an expletive as the corrections officer led him from the video room.

Kingstonist will continue to follow this case through the courts and provide updated coverage as more information becomes available.

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