TORONTO - Robert Baltovich's "18-year nightmare" came to an abrupt and unexpected end Tuesday as a jury delivered a not-guilty verdict just moments after the Crown effectively threw in the towel, citing a lack of evidence to prosecute a case that once resulted in a second-degree murder conviction.
Twice delayed, Baltovich's retrial for his girlfriend Elizabeth Bain's 1990 murder ended almost as soon as it began when the Crown told the jury it would bring no evidence, call no witnesses, nor make any submissions.
The Crown's decision followed decisions in several pre-trial motions in which Ontario Superior Court Justice David McCombs agreed to let the defence present evidence suggesting notorious sex killer Paul Bernardo may have been responsible for Bain's death.
McCombs also excluded evidence from Crown witnesses who were questioned under hypnosis at the time of Baltovich's original trial.
Left with no other option, it took just moments for a verdict that was followed shortly after with a burst of applause from Baltovich's relatives and defence team, who began hugging and congratulating one another.
"I came here today expecting a six-to eight-week trial and within a half-an-hour it was over," a seemingly composed Baltovich said outside the courthouse, his emotional relatives by his side.
"It's going to take a few days to sink in but it's a great feeling. I've been waiting 18 years to hear it and I'm just going to enjoy it for the rest of the day and for the rest of my life."
Baltovich was handed a life sentence in 1992 after he was found guilty of killing Bain, a 22-year-old University of Toronto student whose body has never been found.
The 42-year old served eight years of his prison sentence before he was given a chance to appeal his case and released on bail in 2000.
A not-guilty verdict isn't a declaration of innocence and Baltovich conceded there would always be "doubters," including the Bain family.
"I just hope that one day (the Bains) can come to accept the fact that I didn't kill their daughter," he said.
"I love her. I miss her. I know they do and maybe one of these days we can get together and grieve together."
Although Baltovich didn't rule out the idea of seeking financial compensation for his ordeal, he said it was "the farthest thing" from his mind Tuesday.
His lawyer James Lockyer, however, suggested his client deserves an apology from Toronto police officers who zeroed in on Baltovich almost immediately.
"It took them one hour to decide, in their own minds, that he was probably the person who committed the crime and by that decision they set into motion, really, an inextricable chain of events that have finally got us to where we are," he said.
Suggesting the Crown's case "died of a thousand cuts," Lockyer said Baltovich's story isn't much different than that of others who've been wrongfully convicted in Canada.
"Just as the days went by, the theory, the whole premise of their case, it just fell apart," he said.
While prosecutor Philip Kotanen refused comment following the proceeding, he told court the decision was made after carefully weighing the remaining evidence.
"It has become apparent that there is no longer any reasonable prospect of conviction," he said.
"I can assure the family (of Elizabeth Bain) and the public that this decision has only been taken following a careful and exhaustive review."
Outside the Bain family's home in east Toronto, Julita Bain said Tuesday's decision did not sway their belief that Baltovich killed her daughter.
"We believe that he did it, that doesn't change," said Bain, who added Baltovich "might be freed here but he has to face the final justice up there."
"We're not vengeful people. All we wanted to have was justice for Elizabeth."
In an attempt to exonerate his client, Lockyer put new evidence before the court Tuesday during the brief proceeding.
To dispute a Crown theory that Bain's body was left in an east-end Toronto park for several days before it was moved to the Lake Scugog area, 85 km northeast of Toronto, the defence team conducted an "experiment" to assess the forensic evidence a decomposing body should have left behind.
"The Crown theory is not just difficult to sustain, but impossible to sustain," Lockyer said of the results.
Despite scientific efforts to recover DNA that might point to Bain's true killer, Lockyer said the defence team was "regrettably unable to produce meaningful results that would identify the perpetrator of the crime."
Attorney General Chris Bentley said Baltovich "needed and deserved" the verdict given the evidence the Crown had to argue its case on.
"I hope he will be able to get on with the rest of his life with this matter behind him," he said.
Lawyers pointed the finger at Bernardo as the possible culprit during Baltovich's appeal.
Ontario's highest court quashed the conviction in 2005 and ordered a new trial, saying the original judge had been unacceptably biased in charging the jury that found him guilty.
Bain vanished in June 1990 from her east-end campus. Her blood-stained car was found nearby a few days later.
At his original trial, the Crown argued that a possessive and domineering Baltovich had killed Bain in a jealous rage because she wanted to break up with him. Baltovich was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole for 17 years.
The case eventually caught the eye of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. It was also the subject of a 1998 book "No Claim to Mercy" - a quote from the judge who convicted him - which depicted his conviction as a miscarriage of justice.
During an eight-day appeal in September 2004, his lawyers argued that Bernardo, who had been prowling the east Toronto suburb as the as-yet-unidentified Scarborough rapist around the time of Bain's disappearance, should have been considered a viable suspect in her murder.
Bernardo has denied killing Bain.