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Poaching charges dismissed against Corner Brook doctor

Dr. Justin French and another man had been accused of dragging a net in a salmon river

A high-profile ophthalmologist from Corner Brook has had salmon poaching charges against him dismissed after problems arose with witnesses in the case.

Dr. Justin French and Gord Clarke — a Corner Brook construction worker — were both charged on the basis of surveillance photographs and video.

DFO officers had hidden motion-detecting camera equipment along the banks of a salmon pool on a river just outside Corner Brook.

On the afternoon of Aug. 23 last year, the cameras recorded two men lowering a net into the salmon pool.

The cameras also captured several still photos of the pair, including one in which both men are facing the camera.

DFO officers found witnesses to identify the men in the photos, and charged both French and Clarke in December.

In March, Clarke pleaded guilty, was fined $2,200, and was banned from owning a salmon angling licence for two years.

French, accused of the same offence, pleaded not guilty and chose to go to trial.

The ophthalmologist is one of the highest paid medical specialists in the province. He gained prominence in 2018 during a dispute with the provincial government in which he stated he might leave Newfoundland and Labrador if his proposal for a new eye surgery clinic was rejected. The province eventually signed off on it, and the multi-million dollar clinic on Grenfell Drive is now all but complete.

French was in court for the start of his trial on April 9.

Prosecutor Andrew May called three witnesses — two DFO river guardians and DFO enforcement officer Kim Sheehan.

Sheehan laid the charges, but refused an interview with CBC for this story.

Much of the testimony was highly technical, and focused on camera technology and how the original photos and video were transferred to memory sticks during the investigation.

During cross-examination, French’s lawyer Robby Ash asked questions which revealed that the original SD cards which contained the footage and pictures had been destroyed.

Three weeks later the Crown withdrew the charge against French.

In a statement to CBC News, Mark Stares, team leader of regulatory prosecutions, said “considering the state of evidence as of April 9, 2021, and given our expectations from our recognition witnesses, we have no reasonable prospect of conviction.”

French declined to be interviewed for this story, but a written statement from Ash said “it was immediately apparent to me when I reviewed the disclosure, that a charge should not have been laid against Dr. French.”

CBC News has been unable to determine whether Clarke has ever been asked to identify his poaching accomplice.