After three and a half hours of deliberation by a 12-member jury, the verdict in the Edward Dawson abduction case came in: not guilty.
And for Dawson, this satisfying verdict means the end to a long and difficult road. “I’m really thankful that justice has finally, been served,” Dawson said as he made his way out of the Kentville Courtroom on Friday afternoon, November 14. “It’s been a long road and I feel justice has been served in this decision.”
Dawson, formerly of Waterville, had been charged in 1994 with abducting his son and thereby depriving the mother of access when he disappeared for two years, to be later found living in a sect or community in California. In his trial, Dawson repeatedly said that his intention in leaving the area was to protect his son from imminent harm after a long history of involvement by social workers who had already taken his son twice several years earlier on an allegation of abuse that was never proven.
The trial lasted seven days, during which Dawson represented himself and called 10 witnesses to the stand.
The Crown, represented by Crown attorney Darrell Carmichael, sought to show that in March 1992, Dawson took his son away from the mother with the intention of depriving her of contact. Carmichael told the four-woman, eight-man jury that Dawson did not have custody of the child and that there was no custody order in place at all.
At the time Dawson had an agreement with the mother that he would have custody and she would have visitation rights, but in 1992 she applied to have custody of their son. Dawson was contacted and told of a hearing scheduled in family court to discuss this matter, but he did not appear on the court date and they were not seen or heard from for two years until he was arrested in California in 1994.
The Crown called the mother, Judith Seymour, to the stand first. She said that in 1986, she had custody of their son, Michael, but because of personal circumstances, decided to “entrust the care of her son” to Dawson, to be automatically renewed every year unless notified, with conditions.
In 1992, she moved to Nova Scotia and hired a lawyer “to gain custody of my son.” That March 10, she went to court to apply for custody and a hearing date was set for March 18 so that Dawson could be present. She went with the police and her lawyer to Myrtle Tree Farm in Waterville, where Dawson and Michael lived, to notify Dawson of the date.
But on March 18, Dawson and Michael did not appear. Seymour did not see her son again until February 3, 1994, when Dawson was arrested in California. Seymour testified that she had heard nothing from Dawson and her son.
In cross-examination, she admitted that she had never given Dawson written notice that the agreement between them should be terminated. Seymour also said that the custody matter had never been resolved in family court and that she was afraid to deal with the legal system again.
Supreme court justice John M. Davidson interrupted Dawson many times during Seymour’s cross-examination and through the entire trial to examine the relevance of his questions or to tell him to move on to other issues.
Constable Wendell Murchison and Corporal Vernon Fraser also testified for the Crown. They were involved in serving the papers to Dawson in March 1992. Murchison was also involved in looking for Dawson after his disappearance.
Fraser was cross-examined by Dawson regarding a 1987 apprehension of Michael, who was four years old, by Family and Children’s Services and the RCMP on allegations of abuse.
Dawson went on to establish through Fraser that there had never been any problems at Myrtle Tree Farm.
The final witness for the Crown was Seymour’s lawyer, Heather Hill. She said that she had been retained by Seymour to try and gain access and custody of Michael and found through her research that there had never been any custody decision in the courts. She also spoke of serving the court appearance notice to Dawson about the March 18 hearing. The night after serving the notice, Dawson called her and said that he would be in court for the hearing, but he did not appear.
In response to Dawson’s questions, Hill said that she knew of the appeal decision in 1987 involving Family and Children’s Services versus Dawson in which it was found that an order to keep Michael from Dawson was beyond the department’s jurisdiction and that custody of the boy was given to Dawson.
In his opening arguments as the defence, Dawson told the 12-member jury, “I had custody of Michael by agreement; I had a signed agreement,” referring to the contract made between him and Seymour. “Seymour had no right. She forfeited that right when she signed the agreement.”
Dawson also told the jury that when he took Michael to California, he did so because he “feared imminent harm to Michael because of things that happened in the past. I saw a recurring theme. I had no intention of depriving his mother of any right to access or possession of Michael. That was not my intention when I did what I did. I made every effort to encourage his mother to have input into his life. My sole motivation for doing what I did was to protect my son from imminent harm.”
Dawson started out his case with the testimony of his son Michael, now 14, who recalled being taken away from his father for 44 days when he was apprehended by Family and Children’s Services and the RCMP in 1987. He said that there were many police officers at Myrtle Tree Farm and remembered them taking him away from Dawson. Two social workers were also there. That night, he went to a foster home and also visited two doctors, who examined him and asked him many questions, including questions about his beliefs. At one point, he tried to sneak away from the foster home so he could see his father, but got caught.
When he was returned to Dawson, he said the community held a party for him, but he was fearful he would be taken away again.
Michael also testified that when he went to California with his father, he was relieved because he knew that he wasn’t going to a foster home. In cross-examination, he told the Crown that he and Dawson drove to California and stayed in a tent, but couldn’t say exactly when they left Waterville. He didn’t know where they were going or that his mother had applied for custody. He did know that Dawson was known as Isaac and lived under a different name in California because he didn’t want Michael to be taken away again.
While the Crown’s case only involved four witnesses, Dawson called a total of 12 witnesses to the stand during the trial. They included social workers from the Department of Family and Children’s Services who had been involved in the apprehension of Dawson’s son in 1987 and a police officer who was also present during that incident.
Dawson also called five members of his community to the stand. David Saylor, a leader within the community, testified about telling Dawson of incidents in which relatives had kidnapped and tried to deprogram him, his wife and six children with videos and hate literature, thinking they were involved in a cult by being part of the community.
He was also present, as were the others, when Michael was taken from Myrtle Tree Farm in 1987 and said he found the whole event very upsetting. “I felt an element of trust was broken with social services,” he said. “We did not feel the reasons for taking Michael were substantiated.” He said they were told they could have communication with Michael while he was under the foster care, but the next day, they were told by social workers that they could not. “That was one more breach of trust. The whole situation was very disturbing.” Saylor said that after that incident, Michael was a different boy who was very disturbed “in mental and social ways.”
The others testified in similar detail. Saylor’s wife, Karen, described the apprehension as “extremely traumatic.” She experienced a similar personal incident in which her house was searched and her son was mistakenly taken away by police, which she said was very traumatic for him.
A neighbour to Myrtle Tree Farm, Central Kings teacher Sandra Jardine, also spoke for the defence, saying that she always had a positive relationship with those at the farm, including Dawson.
Dawson also put two social workers for Family and Children’s Services on the stand, asking them questions about their decisions to apprehend Michael in 1987 and then appeal decisions made by the court to return the boy to Dawson. Sylvie Skerry said that Michael was taken from the farm because of “allegations of physical assault,” which they wanted to check out. No evidence of physical abuse was ever found.
Barry Costello, the executive director for Family and Children’s Services, backed up Skerry’s testimony. He had instructed caseworkers to investigate the allegations of abuse. He said the appeals were pursued by the agency because the workers weren’t satisfied that Michael wasn’t abused. He also said that at one point, the boy said that he had been beaten by rods, which concerned the workers.
On the fourth day of the trial, Dawson gave his own account of the events that happened leading up to the charges. He told the jury that after he and Seymour separated, Seymour originally had custody of Michael but transferred custody to Dawson in 1986 when she could no longer look after him. “We didn’t feel a need to go to the court,” he said, noting that making custody decisions was “an authority I feel parents have. It’s their right to make an agreement between themselves.” The conditions of the agreement included visiting rights for Seymour as well as an option to cancel the agreement by written notice if she wanted Michael back.
Then, in March 1987, Michael was taken away twice by social workers - the first time for a night and the second for 44 days - who had heard allegations of abuse. Dawson said that the first time Michael was taken away, the social workers had told him that if there were no signs of abuse, that would be the end of it. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to cooperate.” The second apprehension was only 10 days later and that started several more appearances in court for Dawson in an attempt to get his son back. In court, he said he was repeatedly denied the right to be heard. “Michael was ripped away from me,” Dawson said. When his son was returned, Dawson also described how Michael had changed for the worse, saying that he felt his responsibility to protect Michael had been violated.
During the next couple of years, Dawson made several court appearances and at one point was jailed for more than two months when he refused to tell the court where Michael was.
After many months of family court applications, the matter in family court resumed in December 1988. Weekly visits with a social worker and a psychological assessment were once again ordered for Michael, but Dawson said he refused. “Enough was enough.” He was ordered by the courts to produce Michael but he refused again and was jailed. In February 1989, he understood that he was being charged with parental abduction, but the charge was dropped eventually because of a decision made within the court of appeal in Halifax and Dawson was released. The decision made by the judge established future guidelines for social workers and he and Michael continued to live on Myrtle Tree Farm together, Dawson went on.
Then, in March 1992, he was served with an appearance notice from Family and Children’s Services. Dawson testified that there had been a hearing in family court regarding Michael, to which he hadn’t been invited, and a new date for a hearing was set. “I was completely shocked and completely troubled,” Dawson said. “I was under the impression that things had been worked out.
“I chose not to appear at that hearing and I wrote a letter to the judge. I felt that it was important that I do not place myself above the courts.”
During cross-examination, Dawson described a few of the details about his trip to California with his son. He said that when he was served papers for the March 18 court hearing, he knew Seymour was applying for access, but didn’t know she was applying for custody. However, he did know that Family and Children’s Services was involved. “I was very concerned for my son. This was the same court that had abused him over and over.”
Dawson also admitted that before that time, he had restricted Seymour’s telephone contact with Michael but had allowed and encouraged her contact through personal visits, which she made although she lived in Montreal. After leaving Nova Scotia, he didn’t make contact with Seymour because he said he “felt it was in Michael’s best interests not to be subject to further turmoil. It was not an easy thing. If it could have been different, I would have preferred that.”
“Couldn’t you have mailed her a letter - some scrap of information that her child was alive and well?” Carmichael asked. Dawson agreed that he could have, but Seymour had moved to Nova Scotia by then and he didn’t know where she lived, although he admitted that he could have sent a letter to her lawyer. “I never cut off her access to Michael.”
“You did for two years,” Carmichael retorted.
“Yes, but it’s clear there was another reason for that.”
“I’m thankful I have 12 ordinary citizens here to hear my story,” Dawson said, starting off his final address to the jury, who looked a bit weary. “I’m looking forward to this 10-year ordeal being over.”
In his address, Dawson went over what he felt were the facts of his case, including the string of family court and appeal court battles he went through. He said that because of the 1986 registered agreement between he and Seymour, “I had lawful care and custody of Michael at all times.”
In 1987, Michael was taken away by social workers but the Court of Appeal eventually ruled that Michael had been unlawfully taken away from his father for 44 days because of Dawson’s religious beliefs. Appeals to that decision were dismissed.
Between 1988 and 1991, Seymour made no attempts to gain access and Dawson said that when he was arrested in 1994, and she took Michael to be with her, Michael was not taken home but actually “taken from his home.”
When he left the community in 1992, he did not do it to take Michael away from Seymour. “I did what I believed was necessary to protect Michael from imminent harm from abuse at the hands of the legal system. The risk to Michael was real and not a figment of my imagination.”
When the police car came down his driveway to serve the court papers in 1992, Dawson says the scene “was all too familiar.”
“Was I supposed to sacrifice Michael up just one more time? I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. Just like in 1987 - they took Michael first and asked questions later. And the answers weren’t good enough to satisfy them so they kept Michael. I don’t believe I took Michael from Judy Seymour. I’m sorry she missed one or two visits, but it was necessary to protect Michael from imminent harm.
“When is enough enough?” he asked. “I feared for Michael’s immediate safety, his well being.” After the 1987 apprehension, he said Michael was “terrified of being taken from me again.” When they went to California, “he always knew it was to protect him.”
When Dawson wrote her a letter after his arrest in 1994, he had referred to being sorry for limiting Seymour’s phone calls but said that he didn’t feel he took anything from her “that she didn’t already give me.
“I’m an innocent man and I believe the Crown has not proven otherwise.”
The Crown took quite a different perspective in its closing argument. “No man is above the law,” Carmichael started, saying that Dawson put himself above the law in 1992. “He still believes he is right in doing that today.”
Carmichael stressed that the case was not about who was the better parent or about the beliefs of Dawson’s community or about whether the actions taken by social workers was justified. “This case is about a breach of a specific section of the Criminal Code.”
With three points, Carmichael noted that there was no custody order, that Dawson did take the child away and that the mother did have some rights to the child.
He said that even with the agreement between the parents, Dawson had effectively cut off Seymour’s contact with Michael and that he “virtually left her with no alternative” but to seek custody. “It was an all or nothing proposition.”
Then, when she tried, Dawson “had done exactly what she feared” by taking off. For two years, she heard nothing from Dawson and her son, although Carmichael said the accused could have sent her a letter. “He wanted to completely cut off her contact with the child - just like before he left.”
In making a decision, Carmichael said that the jury must decide whether Seymour had a right to have contact with her son, which she said she did, even with the agreement.
On Dawson’s “imminent harm” defence, Carmichael said that the 1987 and 1992 situations involving Michael were entirely different. “(Dawson) knew exactly what was going on in 1992,” Carmichael suggested, saying that if Dawson didn’t know, then he would have made contact with Seymour from California.
“You have to ask yourself whether you can believe what he says,” Carmichael concluded, suggesting that Dawson was either an honest man or a man prepared to be untruthful if it serves his purpose.