by James Lockyer
Wrongful convictions are an international problem. Our Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted decided there was a need for an International Wrongful Conviction day. It was the idea of one of our founders, Win Wahrer. Seven other countries have now come on board—the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, the U.K., the Netherlands, Ireland and Japan.
Why a wrongful conviction day?
Wrongful Conviction Day informs the general public, on an international level, that wrongful convictions have occurred, are occurring and will continue to occur in the future. There’s a need to change our system to uncover them and avoid them in future.
It’s also a day for the wrongfully convicted themselves—for those who’ve managed to get their convictions quashed and those hoping that that will happen in the future. It is an acknowledgement of the injustice of what’s happened to them.
The right not to be convicted of a crime you didn’t commit is a human right—and if one day a year is a wrongful conviction day, that’s a good thing.
Getting the innocent out of jail and convicting the right person
Here are three cases where a wrongful conviction ultimately led to conviction of the right person.
Nova Scotia’s Donald Marshall Jr. spent 11 years in jail for the murder of Sandy Seale. After Donald was cleared, the real killer, Roy Ebsary, was convicted of the crime.
Newfoundland’s Greg Parsons was convicted of murdering his mother after she was found dead in her bathroom, stabbed more than 50 times. After Greg was cleared, Brian Doyle was convicted of her murder.
David Milgaard was convicted of the 1969 murder of Gail Miller, a nurse in Saskatoon—she was raped and stabbed to death on a street in Saskatoon.
Our association came onto the case in 1997, and we had the uniform Gail had been wearing sent to a laboratory in the U.K. for DNA examination. David Milgaard was excluded but Larry Fisher was a match.
Fisher was charged and convicted of the murder 30 years after it was committed. During the 23 years David Milgaard spent in jail for a crime he did not commit, Larry Fisher had continued raping and stabbing women.
David’s exoneration and Fisher’s incarceration were satisfying outcomes for the public and the criminal justice system.
Our association is at the forefront of trying to expose wrongful convictions in Canada. We prioritize the most serious convictions—mostly murder and manslaughter. These are cases where the individual is serving a substantial sentence, often a life sentence.
In Canada, the process of overturning a wrongful conviction is difficult to go through, complex, time-consuming, and expensive. Few people can afford to go through it and few cases do.
Our clients are people who have exhausted all their appeals. Their only remedy is to try and persuade the Minister of Justice in Ottawa to review their case. And if the decision is made that there was a miscarriage of justice, then the minister will send the case back to the provincial appeal court and have the case re-reviewed by the provincial appeal court.
A much more helpful system is possible
We in Canada are urging for a much more helpful system for claims of wrongful conviction. We’d like to see a tribunal, independent of the minister and governments, which could review, research, and subpoena witnesses and decide if a conviction should stand.
The UK has had this kind of process in place for 20 years now and it’s been extraordinarily successful. More than 500 wrongful convictions have been reversed, ranging from homicide to shoplifting.
What I’d like Wrongful Conviction Day to accomplish
I hope the day helps build awareness of our existence.
I would encourage the public to talk to MPs about the need for reform, to follow our cases on the Internet and through the media, look at our website to see what we’re doing, and keep informed of the issues.
That’s really important in this law and order age, when the focus always seems to be on conviction and punishment. Sometimes, like it or not, we get it wrong.
James Lockyer, a principal at Lockyer Posner Campbell, is co-founder and lead counsel of the Association in Defense of the Wrongfully Convicted, an organization that advocates for the wrongly convicted. His association has reviewed many cases since its inception in 1993, leading to the successful exoneration of 18 innocent people. He himself has helped expose more than ten wrongful convictions in Canada, including the cases of Guy Paul Morin, David Milgaard, Clayton Johnson and Gregory Parsons.