On Thursday morning, a well-heeled, sharply dressed crowd slowly ascended the steep hill to the Saint John Law Courts in New Brunswick's largest city. Snow was falling heavily. As women pulled up luxe, fur-lined hoods, men brushed off lapels and straightened ties. At least 200, plus a strong contingent of media and local gawkers, had gathered to show their support for Dennis Oland, convicted murderer. The courtroom rapidly filled to capacity. Dozens of would-be onlookers lingered in the hall before being turned away by sheriffs.
The sentencing clearly ignited public interest: It was more difficult, however, to say who was there strictly to support Oland, and who also wanted to catch the latest, thrilling installment of one of the most dramatic cases in Saint John's 231-year history. Oland, a 47-year-old former financial advisor from the sixth generation of the Moosehead beer-brewing family, was convicted in December of second-degree murder. His father, Richard Oland, was found hacked and beaten to death on the floor of his own office in July 2011.
Dennis, who sobbed inconsolably when he was found guilty earlier this winter, remained stoic on Thursday. A sympathetic murmur rose as he was led, shackled, into the witness box, wearing the same lightly-rumpled tan jacket, blue dress shirt, and navy, red-pinstriped tie as at his last court appearance. He winked at his wife and smiled at his daughter and stepson—two of the four Oland children in attendance. When asked if he wished to address the court, his only reply was a subdued, "No, sir. Thank you."
The sentence—life in prison with an eligibility for parole after ten years—matched the unanimous recommendation of a jury following the three-month long trial, and 30 grueling hours of deliberations, which wrapped up on December 19.
The protracted, messy legal proceedings were a deep dive into what Justice Walsh described Thursday as an atmosphere of "long-standing family dysfunction." Throughout the three-month trial, Dennis's massive debts, photos of Richard's mistress, and accounts of the Far End Corp. president's emotionally abusive tendencies were splashed above the fold of the local paper.
But while police considered Dennis the prime suspect almost from day one, many in the community, especially those close to the family, see the case against him as circumstantial. Dennis was the last known person to see his father alive, but DNA evidence was scant. The cell phone evidence was confusing. The murder weapon—widely said to be a drywall hammer—was never recovered. A video made public Thursday after CBC petitioned the court of Queen's Bench shows Oland being badgered to confess by Saint John police—who've since been accused of corruption and incompetence in the handling of the case.
"It's my strong belief that Dennis was wrongfully convicted," said Larry Cain, the president of Growth Strategies and "close, personal friend" of Oland's who organized the letter-writing campaign and pre-sentencing rally. "I don't believe the evidence was sufficient."
The case was a "family tragedy of Shakespearean proportions," said Justice John Walsh in court. It seemed that, oppressed by his father's notoriously domineering personality, Dennis "simply lost it, snapped, or exploded, or whatever vernacular term you want to use." But, the judge continued, none of this meant that his father, a 69-year-old competitive sailor and philanthropist, as well as noted sometime jerk, "deserved to be slaughtered on the floor of his own office."
However, many in the community, like Cain, feel that "justice has not been served in this case." Leading up to Thursday's sentencing, friends and acquaintances of the family were asked via email and Facebook to attend the court appearance, and write reference letters attesting to Dennis's sterling character.
With his family wiping away tears in the front row, and written testimonials lauding Dennis as a kind, gentle family man, the sentencing felt, at times, spookily like a funeral. A total of 73 such letters were submitted: excerpts from at least a dozen were read in court. "The only time I ever saw him violent was when he was eight or nine years old," wrote one lifelong friend. "And the target was me. I think we were fighting over a mini-bike." One letter, penned by a former judge described without irony by Oland's lawyer as belonging to "one of the blue blood families" of the region, pushed for the minimum period of parole ineligibility, while praising Dennis for "never wearing his struggles on his sleeve."
But other letters had the opposite of the intended effect. Justice Walsh was unimpressed, he said, that some supporters had "used the character letters as a Trojan horse to express their personal opinions. This bothers me as a judge. My job is hard enough," he said. "The only opinion that matters is that of the jury. I am not pleased." The Crown challenged the admissibility of ten letters, objecting to their categorization of the guilty verdict as a "travesty" and a miscarriage of justice.
Dennis's uncle, Derek Oland, was once again in attendance, flanked by his sons, Moosehead president and CEO Andrew Oland, its chief financial officer Patrick Oland, and many cousins. Despite his well-documented feud with his late brother Richard, Derek has attended almost all legal proceedings. He's also publicly maintained Dennis's innocence, posting his $50,000 bail (ensuring he spent only a few days behind bars prior to December's guilty verdict), and reiterating the belief that the real killer remains at large. In a dark, well-tailored, pinstriped suit, Derek rapidly chewed gum and clenched the polished wooden bench with his fingertips as the Crown outlined its recommendations.
As the family filed, once again, en masse out of court, they declined comment, with facial expressions blending crisply subdued outrage and mild relief. The bright side, from the perspective of those who believe in his innocence, is that while Dennis was sentenced to life, he'll still serve the minimum possible time before he's eligible for parole.
But this dark saga, involving some of the Maritimes' wealthiest elites, is far from over. At a hearing Friday morning in Fredericton, the court heard arguments from both sides as to whether Dennis should be released pending appeal: After charges were first laid in November 2013, he served only a few days in jail before his uncle, Derek Oland, posted his $50,000 bail. Prosecutor Kathryn Gregory argued that releasing a convicted murderer into the community could undermine the public's faith in the judicial process. "What is it about this case… that suggests something unusual?" Gregory asked Mr. Justice J.C. Marc Richard. "This is not a case where there's an argument for fresh evidence, or a brand-new argument that wasn't covered at the trial." Defense lawyer Alan Gold, however, argued that the jury "fell into error" due to faulty judicial instructions and other factors when it delivered the unanimous guilty verdict. "Don't we have to give the jury some credit?" asked the judge. "Twelve intelligent people who have been listening to this for three months? You're going to say that the jury didn't have the intelligence to sort through this, but we do?" If released, Dennis would have to adhere to the same conditions as when he was bailed out prior to his conviction: surrendering his passport, maintaining his home in Rothesay, advising police of any change in his address and of any travel outside of New Brunswick. The cost to his family, however, would be considerably stiffer this time. The Crown said that he would have to provide two additional sureties amounting to $200,000 each. In affidavits previously filed with New Brunswick's Court of Appeal, both Dennis's mother, Constance, and his uncle, Derek, stated they would be willing to act as a surety in whatever amount the court deemed appropriate. "I further believe that my son respects me, and would not do anything to jeopardize my trust in him," said Constance Oland in the affidavit. Dennis also attested to his willingness to abide by the conditions, stating, "I have a great deal of love and respect for my mother and I would not do anything to jeopardize her trust or security." Given the "complicated and convoluted" nature of the case, the judge delayed his decision until Wednesday. "I wish that there were a case I could decide right away," Richard told the court. "I know there's a lot of interest in a decision." The likelihood that Dennis will be set free until his appeal—which might not be heard until October 2016, given that reams of transcripts from the three-month trial first have to be prepared—is either slim-to-none, or virtually assured, depending on whatever legal expert you ask. Whatever the outcome, one thing's certain: Anyone who's anyone in New Brunswick will be watching. Follow Julia Wright on Twitter