I Didn’t Do It: Is There Justice for the Wrongfully Convicted?

_DSC4851My sense of justice really comes unglued when I read about another poor schlep who has spent years in prison for a crime he or she did not commit.

One of the most recent is Romeo Phillion, now 74-years-old, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering Ottawa firefighter, Leopold Roy in 1967. Mr. Phillion spent 31 years behind bars, mainly because of his initial false confession, quickly recanted, which resulted in a plea deal, and the despicable suppression of crucial evidence by the Crown, that would have exculpated Mr. Phillion.

Nothing really important…just uncontroverted evidence known by the Crown, that Romeo Phillion was two hundred kilometres away from the murder scene. You mean he was somewhere else? Yes, that’s right. You mean the real killer is still at large? Yes, again, that’s correct.

It’s a tie as to which family should feel more aggrieved, Mr. Roy’s or Mr. Phillion’s.

While I am a law and order defender, what really galls me is the lack of remorse of police and prosecutors in botched criminal cases. In Mr. Phillion’s case, retired Superintendent John McCombie said “Everything I did, I did according to the law”, also noting that he was “surprised and disappointed”, presumably because Mr. Phillion was set free. The level of arrogance is astounding.

Even with this evidence and Mr. Phillion’s release from prison in 2003, the Crown insisted that he be retried, maintaining this position until 2009 when all charges were dropped. In May 2012 Mr. Phillion filed a $14 million dollar lawsuit, which no doubt will be vigorously opposed by the Crown.

Quebecer Rejean Hinse is another victim who never received an apology. Imprisoned in the 1960’s for an armed robbery conviction, he served eight years of a fifteen year sentence. However, justice was still illusory after the Quebec Court of Appeal quashed his conviction because the Crown, in their wisdom, only entered a “stay of proceedings”.

A “stay” puts the case on hold for one year or permanently, but provides no resolution as to guilt or innocence. Clearly not a satisfactory outcome for an innocent accused.

Mr. Hinse was able to take his case to the Supreme Court of Canada where the Court ruled there was insufficient evidence to convict. Despite his acquittal, he had to fight for financial compensation, finally in 2011 receiving $4.5 million in a settlement with the Quebec government and obtaining a judgment against the federal government of $8.6 million. Not surprisingly, the feds are appealing the order that they pay millions in compensation.

The road to a declaration of innocence is long and tortuous. Of course, Canada is not alone in its reluctance to implement a process where the wrongfully convicted can have speedy access to independent review procedures, DNA testing and the like. Criminal justice reformers have recommended an independent committee, outside of the criminal justice system, to address these horrific cases, a plan that is long overdue.

In a recent Illinois case, 50-year-old Andre Davis, who served 32 years in prison for the 1980 rape and murder of three-year-old Brianna Sickler, was exonerated when it was determined that blood and semen at the crime scene was not Davis’. Nonetheless, State Attorney Julia Reitz could not bring herself to admit the unbelievable injustice of Mr. Davis’ wrongful conviction, instead remarking they would not retry Andre Davis because of the age of the case and deceased or missing witnesses.

While it is difficult to find Canadian statistics on the number of wrongfully convicted, the University of Michigan has established a national registry for the United States where they record 891 wrongfully convicted persons between January 1989 and March 2012.. These numbers do not include another 1,170 victims who were exonerated in “group exonerations”, cases where thirteen separate “police scandals” have resulted in overturned convictions.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be tried and convicted at trial, endure an unsuccessful appeal, perhaps even a further appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, and then languish in prison for dozens of years, for a crime you didn’t commit.

When Rejean Hinse was asked by the media to describe his time in prison, he showed them a picture of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” to explain the utter despair he suffered. No amount of money can atone for a life in prison.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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