by Michael Potestio, Kamloops This Week

A Merritt man who spent 26 years in prison for a murder conviction that was reviewed by federal Justice Department will be allowed to move to the Kamloops area, a B.C. Supreme court judge has ruled.

Justice Joel Groves has varied the bail conditions for Gerald Bernard Klassen, who intends to move to Kamloops from his current residence in Mission.

Klassen’s application for the variance lifted conditions that he remain in the Fraser Valley community and was made with the consent of Crown, which has yet to release a decision on whether it will seek a retrial.

Earlier this year, federal Justice Minister David Lametti concluded that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred and has ordered a new trial for Klassen.

The decision came after a lengthy review by the federal Justice Department into the case against Klassen, who in 1995 was found guilty by a B.C. Supreme Court jury of the 1993 first-degree murder of Julie McLeod, 21.

Klassen received the mandatory sentence of life in prison with no parole eligibility for 25 years. He appealed his conviction, but the appeals were rejected.

His case came to the attention of the University of B.C.’s Innocence Project, which handles claims of wrongful conviction, and eventually resulted in an application to the Justice Department for a review in 2017.

In December 2020, a B.C. Supreme Court justice ordered that Klassen, then 60 years old, be released on bail, pending the review.

In a news release, the justice department said that before deciding to order a new trial or appeal, the minister must be satisfied there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice occurred.

The review involved close examination of information initially submitted in support of the application, followed by an in-depth investigation.

The minister’s decision came as a result of the identification of new information that was not before the courts at the time of Klassen’s trial or appeal, the news release states.

“It is not a decision about the guilt or innocence of the applicant, but rather a decision to return the matter to the courts where the relevant legal issues may be determined according to law,” the release states.

At the time of Klassen’s release on bail, court heard that the focus of his application was new forensic reports that cast doubt on the findings of the pathologist who testified at trial.

The reports found that the pathologist’s evidence was flawed and might represent a miscarriage of justice.

Tamara Levy, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said the Crown must decide whether it is going to seek a new trial for Klassen.

“I think it would be highly unlikely, but they have that option,” she said. “He’s already spent 26 years in prison. There is no longer a substantial likelihood of conviction with the new evidence and it just doesn’t seem in the public interest.”

The trial heard that the victim, McLeod, was last seen alive in Klassen’s vehicle on the evening of Dec. 15, 1993, when the pair obtained beer from a clandestine supplier.

The Crown’s theory was that after they drove to the Nicola Lake recreation area near Merritt in Klassen’s vehicle, he sexually assaulted and murdered her.

Klassen testified that they had been drinking and had consensual sex before engaging in a confrontation. He said he pushed McLeod and she fell to the ground and hit her head, adding he left her and drove home.

Klassen denied committing murder, but the jury rejected his evidence.