With new true crime docuseries debuting on a weekly basis, the differentiating factor between them is often less the freshness of their filmmaking than the quality of their mystery. In that regard, The Suspect proves a worthy addition to the ever-burgeoning subgenre, delivering a baffling Canadian whodunit that, like so many legal thrillers, ultimately hinges on the contentious question of reasonable doubt.
Director Deborah Wainwright’s four-part investigation (premiering Aug. 18 on Sundance Now, after airing earlier this year on CBC) concerns the murder of Richard Oland, a 69-year-old businessman who lived in Rothesay, New Brunswick, a tony, mansion-filled suburb of Saint John. Richard’s father was the chairman and CEO of Moosehead Breweries, and though control of that empire ultimately went to his brother Derek, Richard was nonetheless a success in his own right (he was president of the 1985 Canada Games), as well as a demanding and sometimes difficult man—and dad. On the evening of July 7, 2011, someone visited Richard in his Canterbury Street office and bludgeoned him to death, striking him 40 times in the skull. It was a gruesome scene and one where the excessive up-close-and-personal carnage—as well as the later determination that nothing valuable was stolen—suggested it was a crime of passion committed by an individual motivated by a personal grudge.
Led by Chief Bill Reid, police immediately focused their attention on a single suspect: Richard’s son Dennis, who was the last known person to see his father that night, having visited him at the office—on three quick occasions—to discuss a family tree project they had been working on together. Traces of blood that matched Richard’s DNA were found on Dennis’ jacket (this after Dennis had initially said he was wearing a different jacket that day). Furthermore, Richard’s cellphone had been taken, and pinged off a tower that night in the same vicinity as the wharf that Dennis said he subsequently visited (to check on his kids). Since Dennis was in dire financial straits, law enforcement surmised that he had murdered Richard after being turned down for another loan. To them, it was a clear-cut instance of homicidal rage, with Dennis then taking the victim’s phone and dumping it in the water—presumably along with the murder weapon, which was never identified or recovered.
That circumstantial theory was enough for a jury to find Dennis guilty of second-degree murder. The Suspect, however, really kicks into gear ten months after that late 2015 decision, when Dennis successfully argued that improper instructions given to the jury by the judge should negate his conviction, thus setting the stage for a retrial. Director Wainwright relays her sordid saga through a combination of dramatic recreations, interviews (with journalists, experts and her story’s principals), trial testimony set to animated courtroom sequences, TV news reports and graphical timelines. Yet her trump card is access to post-prison-release Dennis, following him as he prepares—with wife Linda, lawyers Alan Gold, Gary Miller and Michael Lacy, and a three-person team of investigators—to definitively prove his innocence.
A scene from The Suspect of Dennis Oland’s defense team
Or should I say, prove his not-guiltiness? Incontrovertible truth is hard to ascertain in The Suspect. Thanks to law enforcement mistakes, the crime scene was trampled through, and key areas (Richard’s office bathroom, and back door) were never examined. Two men (Anthony Shaw and John Ainsworth) visiting the store below Richard’s office heard loud noises on the night in question, apparently between 7:30 and 8 p.m.—a time frame that (though Ainsworth later changed his tune, for dubious reasons) seemed to eliminate Dennis as the killer, since he was caught by surveillance cameras elsewhere at that point. Both the jacket DNA and cell tower evidence was dubious and inconclusive. And the fact that Dennis (and everything he came into contact with) wasn’t covered in blood—this despite the brutality of the slaying—raised further doubts about how he could have pulled off this apparently perfect crime.
Throw in the revelation that Richard had a furious mistress, Diana Sedlacek, who was trying to reach him at the time of his death, and whose recent correspondence with him was borderline-unhinged, and the case against Dennis starts to seem shaky. The Suspect thus morphs into a study of criminal justice procedures, and the dynamics that govern murder trials. Key to its inquiry is the notion of courtroom storytelling. While defendants are only legally required to raise reasonable doubt that they didn’t commit an offense, in practice, it’s generally best to counter a prosecution’s hypothesis with one’s own alternate explanation for what took place—meaning that peer-decided cases are frequently competitions between dueling narratives. Recognizing this, Dennis and his lawyers attempt to have their retrial heard not by a jury but by a judge, who they think will focus more on the evidence at hand rather than circumstantial tales told by prosecutors.
Sticking close to Dennis as he retraces his movements on the night of his dad’s murder, meets with his counsel, and hangs out with his kids, The Suspect boasts access to the accused that invariably sways its portrait in his favor. Fortunately, such bias feels increasingly warranted the further Dennis’ ordeal develops, and more holes emerge in the Crown’s position. Director Wainwright spends a bit more time than is necessary on a couple of peripheral issues, such as the process of analyzing polygraph tests. But in a fashion reminiscent of Making a Murderer, she connects the dots between wealth, privilege, power and police-department obstinacy and self-preservation instincts to weave a larger tapestry of the numerous forces at play in high-profile investigations and prosecutions.
Anyone with a hankering for spoilers can find out how The Suspect ends via a Google search. Still, Wainwright’s painstaking survey of this headline-making story provides regular insights into a wide variety of criminal justice areas, be it legal defense strategies, law enforcement practices, or the prejudices that can drive and dictate jury decisions. Moreover, it’s simply got what many of its non-fiction brethren don’t: a compelling central mystery that begets a lot of tantalizing conjecture, but few concrete answers.