At least 3 per cent of convicted murderers in prison are innocent, according to one of the country’s most prominent social justice activists.
“That’s a lot of people in Canadian prisons for murders they didn’t commit,” lawyer James Lockyer told a large crowd gathered to hear him speak at the Green Valley Alliance Church in Bradford, Ontario, Oct. 23.
“I can’t prove that, but I think I have a fair bit of experience of wrongful convictions and I think that is probably a very conservative estimate,” added the man who has played a central role in virtually every case of the wrongfully convicted to hit the headlines in the past two decades.
Known just as much for his trademark shock of untamable hair as being the co-founder of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, Lockyer has helped to exonerate 25 people convicted of the most heinous and violent crimes, including Donald Marshall, David Milgaard, Steven Truscott, Romeo Phillion, William Mullins-Johnson and Robert Baltovich.
He was instrumental in exonerating Guy Paul Morin, whose story mirrors others in a long, heartbreaking, almost unbelievable, litany of the wrongfully convicted recounted by Lockyer in a two-hour lecture.
Reasons for wrongful convictions
It involves some of the most vulnerable members of society being “caught up” in a system plagued by a combination of prosecutors concealing evidence, “creative” police work, blunders of a pathologist, barely credible witnesses or shoddy instructions from a trial judge, Lockyer explained.
An inquiry culminating in the Kaufman report into Morin’s case, for example, uncovered evidence of police and prosecutorial misconduct, misrepresentation of forensic evidence by the Ontario Centre of Forensic Sciences, and resulted in the chief prosecutor’s resignation.
Except in rare cases like the Morin inquiry, there’s a significant lack of accountability in the system, Lockyer said, adding cases of misconduct are only brought to light via public inquiries.
Case in point was the massive public inquiry of now disgraced forensic examiner Dr. Charles Smith, whose erroneous findings resulted in Mullins-Johnson’s wrongful conviction and 11-year-incarceration for the sodomy and strangulation death of his four-year-old niece when she had, in fact, died of natural causes.
Mullins-Johnson, a member of the Ojibway First Nations, in broken voice and obvious stutter, said during his appeal testimony the wrongful conviction destroyed his life and split his family.
“It had my brother thinking I killed his little girl and me thinking my brother did it because I knew I didn’t,” he said.
Lockyer says a government-funded tribunal should be established in Canada similar to the one created in the United Kingdom over 20 years ago that has cleared more than 100 wrongful convictions.
Currently, 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.
A post-conviction tribunal would examine and double-check the work of courts in important cases, look at each individual claim of wrongful conviction and send the most contentious to appeal, Lockyer said.
It took 48 years to clear Steven Truscott’s name, 10 of which under an appeal with Lockyer at the helm of the case of the 14-year-old who was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his 12-year-old friend, Lynne Harper, in 1959 after a 15-day trial.
“It was a very long haul indeed to clear Steven, but at the end of it, worth of every minute,” Lockyer said, adding how terrible it must have been for the 14-year-old, on death row for three months before his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, convinced renovations at the Goderich jail where he was being held was the building of a scaffold for his hanging.
“Thankfully, we don’t have the death penalty,” Lockyer said, adding Stephen Harper is the only prime minister in the past 70 years across party lines to support the death penalty.
Rating Canada’s justice system a 7 out of 10, Lockyer said it is a reasonably good system, multiple times better than the U.S., but with a whole lot of room for improvement.
A version of this piece was originally published by YorkRegion.com. Heidi Riedner is a reporter for the Georgina Advocate, Bradford West Gwillimbury Topic, YorkRegion.com and their sister papers. She can be reached at HRiedner@nullyrmg.com. Follow her on Twitter.