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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Quebec’s Former Lieutenant-Governor Sentenced to 18-Month Jail Term

BarristerPerhaps one of the most prestigious appointments in Canada is that of a provincial Lieutenant-Governor, appointments made by the Governor-General of Canada in consultation with Canada’s Prime Minister and the Premier of a particular province.

The Lieutenant-Governor performs various ceremonial duties on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, while elected politicians and those appointed carry out the daily operations of government. It is a non-partisan position although politicians have been appointed and Canada prides itself on the appointment of women and minorities.

Lise Thibault was Quebec’s 27th Lieutenant-Governor appointed in 1997 by Prime Minister Chretien. She attended teacher’s college and taught adult education for several years before she worked as a host and researcher for the CBC. Her appointment was widely heralded as she was the first woman and the first disabled person to be appointed to the post in Quebec. As a result of a tobogganing accident as a teenager she was confined to a wheelchair.

Serving for over ten years, her fall from grace occurred in 2007 when federal and provincial auditors determined she had spent $700,000 in unjustified expenses including:

-$45,000 for “gifts” without the names of recipients.
-$24,000 to transport her official van to the United States while she was on vacation, rather than renting a car there.
-$12,000 to the provincial air service for a one-day fishing trip in the Gaspe region.
-$44,000 in “tips” paid by her bodyguards during hotel stays and sporting activities.

Upon her appointment she promised to bring “values” to the position, but instead defrauded two levels of government by billing them for her golf lessons, fishing rods, roof repairs at her home, and even the legal fees for her divorce lawyer.

Her defence lawyer argued she enjoyed “sovereign immunity” against criminal charges as an agent of the Queen, an arrogant position considering she was a civil servant. However, the Court rejected her argument and Judge Carol St.-Cyr described her behaviour as “highly reprehensible” and part of a “culture of deceit”.

Ms. Thibault was also ordered to reimburse the government the sum of $300,000.

Tonight she sits in a Quebec prison, despite her lawyer’s plea that at age 76 her punishment is overly severe. She is expected to be released next week pending her appeal.

Having received three honorary doctorates during her tenure as Lieutenant-Governor, it is galling that she is nothing more than a greedy crook, who managed to obtain and abuse her coveted position, forgetting that her job was to serve the citizens of Quebec.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Canadian Judge Faces Scrutiny by Federal Judicial Council

BarristerIt’s been a busy few years for Canada’s Judicial Council, the body that reviews complaints against federally appointed judges in Canada.

While all eyes and ears were focused on the lengthy and salacious Justice Lori Douglas Inquiry, which finally ended with the announcement of her voluntary retirement in November 2014, and the welcomed termination of the “dog and pony show” that the Inquiry became, other members of the Judicial Council have been anything but idle.

In 2012 Quebec’s Chief Justice brought forward a complaint to the Judicial Council with respect to Superior Court Justice Michel Girouard, a 2010 appointment to the Quebec bench. A separate Inquiry of another Quebec judge was commenced in 2014.

With far less media scrutiny than Lori Douglas endured, the allegations against Justice Girouard centre on informants who say the judge was a regular customer of a certain drug dealer in Val d’Or while he was a lawyer.

More startling yet are the allegations that he had gangsters install a marijuana grow operation in his basement and offered legal advice in exchange for cocaine, even when he became a judge!

Wiretap evidence played at the Inquiry revealed conversations between the judge and his alleged drug dealer where the pair discussed when he could pick up certain “videos” and whether there were any good “videos” available that week. Inquiry counsel, Marie Cossette, argued that “videos” was subterfuge for “cocaine”.

Perhaps even more damning is the existence of a surveillance video of the learned jurist recorded two weeks before his appointment to the bench, where he is seen purchasing cocaine at the back of a local video store, from the same drug dealer heard in the wiretaps.

The video, which has not yet been viewed by the Inquiry panel, is said to show a transaction between the judge and Yvon Lamontagne, the store owner, who sold drugs at the back of his store and is said to be a major player in the drug scene in Northern Quebec. The wiretaps and video were collected during a successful drug sting called “Crayfish”.

Judge Girouard denied all the allegations, explaining that Mr. Lamontagne was a client to whom he was giving advice on a tax matter. He said he often visited clients’ businesses to conduct meetings.

The issue before the Inquiry panel last week was the admissibility into evidence of the video. Lawyers for Judge Girouard argued the publication of photos of their client with drug dealers or pedophiles in the course of his law practice would be damaging to his reputation and hurtful to his family. They also suggested the surveillance was unlawful and a violation of his fundamental rights.

Ms. Cossette responded saying that Judge Girouard should have no expectation of privacy when he conducts a meeting in a store with the office door open and a clerk and customers just a few steps away.

While Judge Girouard’s lawyers complained that Ms. Cossette was reaching far beyond her role as independent counsel, a strategy reminiscent of the perpetual criticism of independent counsel(s) in the Lori Douglas Inquiry, Chief Justice of Manitoba, Richard Chartier, who is chairing the Inquiry panel, confirmed his view that Ms. Cossette’s conduct was “very honourable”.

It remains to be seen whether Judge Girouard’s alleged conduct will be similarly ascribed.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Family Law in Canada? It Depends Where You Live

BarristerToday’s decision from the Supreme Court of Canada in A. v. B. has closed the door for common law spouses in Quebec to receive spousal support upon the demise of their conjugal relationships, a ruling that signaled the conclusion of a long-running legal saga launched by the former common law spouse of a Canadian billionaire.

While married spouses and those in civil unions are entitled to apply for support, “de facto” spouses, the term used for common law spouses in Quebec, may not, unless they have entered into a cohabitation agreement with their partner which provides for support upon the breakdown of their relationship.

Quebec’s distinctive language and culture is also accompanied by a Napoleonic legal system which is not shared by other provinces in Canada. Our highest Court examined the spousal support provisions of the Quebec Civil Code and determined that freedom of choice and personal autonomy trumps a family law regime that imposes obligations on spouses who do not expressly consent.

The upshot? If you want spousal support in Quebec you need to be married, in a civil union, or have a cohabitation agreement which covers support if the relationship fails.

Ironically, while the absence of support for common law spouses in Quebec has now been confirmed as constitutional, the British Columbia legislature is mere weeks away from ushering in new law that will see common law spouses, including same-sex partners, enjoy the same benefits as married couples in regards to the division of property.

All Canadian provinces, with the exception of Quebec, provide for spousal support for common law spouses, but British Columbia’s new law is cutting-edge, albeit B.C. is not the first province in Canada to afford property rights to common law spouses. Those honours belongs to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunwick. However, it is a radical departure from the law as we know it today.

Presently, British Columbia couples are obliged to share all of their property, even if the property is brought into the marriage by one of the spouses. Our new law will ensure that if a spouse brings property into a marriage or common law relationship, that property will belong solely to the spouse who owns the property. However, if the property increases in value during the marriage or common law relationship, the increase in value may be shared by the parties.

As well, certain property will be exempt from sharing, including inheritances, which in our current law has been the source of bitter disputes, particularly when a large inheritance has been received by one spouse in the waning years of a marriage.

Another feature of B.C.’s new law will be the introduction of family law arbitration, a dispute resolution mechanism which is “old hat” in Ontario. In fact, Ontario lawyers have advanced to “med-arb”, a process where a senior lawyer or retired judge first tries to mediate a dispute and if that is unsuccessful, assumes the role of arbitrator and makes a final decision for the parties.

While Canada’s federal Divorce Act remains unchanged, with the exception that same-sex couples may now divorce, family law is rapidly evolving throughout Canada, depending upon where you live, and will likely not slow down anytime soon.

How could it be otherwise? Lawmakers across Canada need to figure how to approach sperm and gamete donation, donor parents, surrogacy contracts, and other intricacies of the new technology, together with the ramifications of same-sex marriage and divorce: all of which is changing what families look like in Canada today.