Cases of wrongful conviction a Canada-wide phenomenon
Sep 3, 2003
Innocent people are not supposed to be convicted of criminal offences in Canada. We have established many procedural and evidentiary safeguards to ensure this doesn't happen.
Some people believe there are too many safeguards and that guilty people are getting away with crimes. These critics would like to see the rules relaxed so it is easier to get convictions. They don't believe innocent people are wrongly sent to jail.
Unfortunately, innocent people do get convicted and some of them spend a long time in jail. As indicated in my last column, the problem is not unique to any one province.
Wrongful convictions have occurred all across Canada. David Milgaard was wrongfully convicted in Saskatchewan. The same fate befell Thomas Sophonow in Manitoba. Nova Scotia wrongfully convicted both Donald Marshall and Clayton Johnson.
Few people are even charged with murder in Newfoundland. Despite this Ronald Dalton, Gregory Parsons and Randy Druken were all wrongfully convicted there for that offence. As one might expect, Ontario has also had its cases of wrongful conviction.
In 1972, Gary Staples was convicted in Hamilton for the murder of cab driver Gerald Burke. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent 22 months in jail before he was retried and acquitted. Thirty years later, on Dec. 5, 2002 Chief Kenneth Robertson of the Hamilton Police Service finally issued a statement acknowledging that the wrongful conviction was caused in part by "the substandard conduct of certain members of the Police Department in 1969 to 1972."
Only then did Staples receive an official acknowledgement of his innocence.
Guy Paul Morin was 25 years old in 1985 when he was arrested for the murder of Christine Jessop in Queensville, Ont. He remained in jail for almost 10 months before he was acquitted following his first trial.
This decision was overturned on appeal and a new trial took place. Morin was convicted of first degree murder in 1992 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent six months in jail before he was released on bail pending an appeal.
In 1995, the Ontario Court of Appeal set aside the conviction and acquitted Morin after a comparison of semen found on Christine Jessop's underwear to Morin's DNA profile demonstrated that Morin was not the donor of the semen and after Crown counsel conceded that the evidence proved as an indisputable scientific fact that Morin was not guilty.
In 1990, 22 year old Chris McCullogh was charged with murdering Beverley Perrin in Hamilton. He too was convicted and spent almost nine years in jail before being acquitted by the Ontario Court of Appeal.
Like both Morin and Sophonow, McCullogh was convicted after jailhouse informants testified against him in return for money and other favours.
These young men were all wrongfully convicted of murder in Canada. They are not alone. There are many other Canadians who have been wrongfully convicted of less serious crimes. Many of them have also gone to jail for something that they did not do.
They are victims of our imperfect criminal justice system. They are not the only victims however.
In his statement, Chief Robertson apologized not only to Gary Staples and his family, but also to the children of Gerald Burke. Robertson recognized that they too had been revictimized by a system that sent an innocent man to jail while the real killer remained free.
Many of those who were wrongfully convicted have been exonerated as a result of groups such as the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) and the Innocence Project.
For more information on AIDWYC, visit www.aidwyc.org and for the Innocence Project, go to www. yorku.ca/dmartin/Innocence/innocenc.
David Harris is a Burlington resident with a criminal law practice in Oakville. He is writing a series of columns on criminal law. To find his past columns, visit the Web site www.lawyers.ca/dharris.