June 13, 2004 

N.S. man granted new trial relives shooting


HALIFAX (CP) - Rodney Cain remembers looking into the eyes of Joel Willis moments before firing the gunshot that killed him in a Toronto parking lot.

"His eyes were all bloodshot red," the soft-spoken Cain recalled recently from Frontenac Institution, a minimum security prison in Kingston, Ont. "He looked like he was high . . . He looked really scary."

Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, having reviewed some new evidence in the case, recently ordered a new trial for Cain, raising the hopes of the 45-year-old Halifax native that he could soon be exonerated of the crime that's kept him behind bars for almost two decades.

He was convicted of shooting Willis in 1985, but has struggled for years to prove he killed the man in self-defence.

Cain said he remembers it was a warm April afternoon when he went to an after-hours club on St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto, looking to sort out a dispute between his brother and one of the Willis brothers.

Cain's brother claimed he'd been beaten and robbed of $2,800 and some drugs by Lester Willis.

Willis allegedly called the mugging payment for a debt Rodney Cain owed him.

The accusation drew Cain back into a world he says he'd been trying to leave behind.

Cain, a former drug dealer, said he'd been trying to go straight, get a job and concentrate on raising his young son and daughter.

"I was focusing on a family life, and I wanted to watch my children grow up," he said.

Before he went to the Willis's club, Cain persuaded his brother to hand over his gun in what Cain insists was a bid to defuse the situation.

Later, Cain was still carrying the gun when he approached the building.

Cain says Lester's brother Joel emerged with another brother and two friends.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened next.

Cain says he knew he was in trouble.

"(Joel) put a pair of driving gloves on and he snapped them. Then he went to his back pocket and he took out this bowling pin and he said to me, 'Roddy, you come here looking for trouble and trouble you're going to get.' "

Cain, who was then a slender five-foot-10 and 135 pounds, says he backed away from the heavier Willis. But the others surrounded him.

Cain pulled out the .22-calibre pistol and waved it around. He says he was hoping to scare them off, but it didn't work.

"I see this bat up in the air, or the bowling pin, and he's on his way to hit me with it. I hear him saying, 'I'm going to bash your head in!'

"It was at that point that I just got so afraid and I just came up and I shot the gun."

Though Cain says he had never fired a gun before, the bullet hit Willis in the chest and killed him.

At the trial, the Crown painted Cain as an angry man who had come to earn respect from the Willis family.

The Crown argued Willis had walked out of the club, acting as a concerned older brother who only wanted to prevent a confrontation.

Cain's common law wife and friend, who had both been with him at the club, supported Cain's version of events.

However, other witnesses, including another of the Willis brothers, testified Cain had fired the gun without warning and hadn't been threatened.

The Crown suggested it made no sense for Willis, armed only with a bowling pin, to challenge a man with a gun.

In fact, several witnesses initially denied that Willis was even carrying the pin, which he usually kept on a shelf in the bar. The pin was later found by police on the roof of a garage next to the club.

Cain's story didn't help him, says lawyer Phil Campbell.

"That's really part of Rodney's problem. He's a black guy who's immersed in, or at least involved in, the world of drug dealing and he's got a gun in his pocket. So he's seriously on the defensive."

Cain was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to prison with no chance of parole for 12 years.

He spent years trying to persuade anyone who would listen that he wasn't guilty. From a prison phone, he called politicians, lawyers and private investigators as he tried to track down witnesses.

"I felt like I had no life lines at some points . . . when I was trying to prove my innocence."

But, eventually, the pieces started to come together.

Two witnesses filed statements saying that Cain had fired the gun only as Willis came at him.

Other witnesses changed their stories, claiming they had been harassed by the Willis family, and further evidence described Joel Willis as an reckless, violent man involved in organized crime such as drug trafficking and prostitution.

After receiving an independent report that summarized all the new facts and evidence, the federal justice minister took the rare step last month of calling for a new trial.

In the days ahead, Ontario's attorney general will decide whether to order a new trial or release Cain outright.

Meanwhile, his lawyers are preparing a bail application, which they hope to file soon.

After years of pleading his case to strangers, Cain chooses his words carefully these days, calling himself "naive" in his past life.

He speaks of the growth of his Christian faith and even of spiritual visions he's had while behind bars.

"This loud voice said to me, 'Prepare yourself, you're going away for a very long time.' "

But the long wait appears to be over, he said.

"This is something that I've been hoping for. I've held onto my faith for a long time."