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Canada opens up a multi-pronged effort to battle wrongful convictions

News

On March 1, 2019, Glen Assoun became a free man after spending 20 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of the murder of his girlfriend.

The case against Assoun ignored the lack of physical evidence linking him with the murder and his alibi, which placed him far away from the crime scene and which was backed up by three people.

Working against him was the testimony of three people claiming to be witnesses: one, who was prone to “psychic premonitions,” another who was a jailhouse informant receiving leniency in exchange for testimony, and a final witness who was winning reduced charges in exchange for testifying.

When Assoun was finally granted a new trial, 20 years after his conviction, the Crown called no evidence and he was quickly acquitted.

Assoun’s story, along with 82 others, is now displayed at wrongfulconvictions.ca, a new Canadian registry of wrongful convictions. The website launched this week to shine a spotlight on people who have suffered miscarriages of justice and to ask an unknowable question: how many more are out there?

“We think this is the tip of the iceberg,” said Kent Roach, one of the registry’s creators and a professor of law at the University of Toronto.

Jessie Stirling, an Indigenous rights lawyer who has volunteered with the registry since 2018, said she’s hoping the website will allow people to identify other cases of wrongful conviction.

“We’re hoping that as a side effect of raising public awareness, we’re also going to be able to bring other stories to light that haven’t yet been [examined],” said Stirling.

Stirling said even the modest amount of cases included in the registry has already shown them worrying trends in the justice system.

“With the system getting it wrong and really harming people, particularly women and racialized people, we noticed great over-representation in those groups in the 83 cases that are available on the website,” said Stirling.

The data on the website is publicly available and breaks down the causes of wrongful convictions, such as perjury, false confessions, and misleading forensic evidence.

The government is also trying to make it easier for people who have been wrongfully convicted to plead their case.

Last week, Justice Minister David Lametti introduced a bill that would create an independent commission to review wrongful convictions and decide which cases should be sent back to the justice system. At a press conference on Thursday, Lametti was joined by Susan Milgaard, whose brother David Milgaard was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1969, before being released in 1992 and exonerated in 1997.

Even in cases like Assoun’s and Milgaard’s, where glaring flaws in the case are spotted almost immediately, it can still take years for a resolution.

“Some of these files go back decades. We need a system that moves more quickly, both for people applying as well as for victims. And the process needs to be independent,” said Lametti, at Thursday’s press conference.

The bill was introduced last week and still has to be steered through the House of Commons and the Senate before the commission can be brought to life, but Roach said even that’s no guarantee of success. Resources will matter too, he said.

“I think there’s going to be more of a debate about wrongful convictions now because of the bill,” said Roach. “There’s a lot of work for the commission to do, but it needs proper funding, and it needs proper resources.”

The registry allows the researchers to look for patterns in the type of crimes

For example, about one-third of the wrongful convictions on the registry are “imagined crimes,” where someone was put in jail even though no actual crime was committed.

Tammy Marquardt spent 13 years in jail after being convicted of murdering her son, who was later found to have asphyxiated from getting tangled in his bedsheets. Marquardt was one of the 13 people sent to jail based on the work of Charles Smith, a disgraced pathologist who had conducted faulty autopsies and was later stripped of his license.

The registry also shows that 18 percent of the cases were guilty pleas, where a defendant apparently had no faith that the system would reveal their innocence.

Joel Voss, who has volunteered with the registry since 2020, said he suspects there are many more wrongful guilty pleas waiting to be discovered.

“A small percentage of all criminal cases go to trial and… the vast majority of convictions result in guilty pleas,” said Voss.

“So given that so many cases in the justice system in Canada have resulted in a guilty plea—and we do indeed know from our registry that there are significant amounts of cases that are wrongful convictions based off guilty pleas—we would have to think that the total volume of cases is much, much, much larger than what we have right now,” said Voss.

Canadians are worried about violent crime and Conservatives see an opportunity

News

In the depths of winter in Toronto a rash of violent attacks shocked the country and put pressure on the Liberal government to do something beyond its controversial gun control legislation that had spiraled into a political problem for an embattled prime minister.

The year was 2006, not 2023, and Liberal leader Paul Martin was struggling against a revitalized Conservative coalition in an election campaign he would ultimately lose.

The shooting death of 15-year-old Jane Creba, who was shopping with friends on Yonge Street on Boxing Day, and the ensuing uproar would become emblematic of the country’s fixation on crime and public safety during the 2006 election.

The Conservative “tough on crime” message found a receptive audience as Toronto set a record for gun-related killings in 2005 and Stephen Harper led his party to victory in that election, governing the country until 2015.

A litany of recent headlines about violent attacks in Toronto and polling data showing Canadians are worried has new Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre seeing a similar opportunity.

In Calgary on Wednesday, Poilievre targeted the government’s reluctance on bail reform as a key factor in rising violent crime rates across the country.

“Here in Calgary, we’ve seen a whole spate of violent crimes targeting innocent people that are the direct result of (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau’s broken bail system and the ridiculous catch-and-release policies that he’s implemented,” said Poilievre.

A video released this week by Poilievre bucks his usual style of talking directly to viewers and simply shows news clips of violent crimes in Canada with the headline “After 8 Years of Trudeau.”

Trudeau told reporters recently that his government is looking into bail reform, after an Ontario Provincial Police officer was killed in December, but the prime minister also said he was worried about “challenges around impacts, particularly on Indigenous or minority groups.” One of the OPP officer’s alleged killers was denied bail in an assault case but was later released.

Public safety and crime is a tricky issue that can transcend ideology because Canadians train their ire at whoever is in charge at the time, said Shachi Kurl, the president of Angus Reid Institute.

“The thing about crime is it’s kind of ideology-proof. At people’s very basic essence, they want to go out of their house and walk on the street and not be worried about if something bad is going to happen,” said Kurl.

Kurl said that many of the violent incidents Canadians are seeing on the news don’t directly involve the federal government and that issues of local policing are governed at the municipal level. In recent weeks, Trudeau has preferred to talk about being “happy to partner with provinces and municipalities,” rather than proposing federal solutions.

“But as the justice minister or the prime minister, you can’t be like, ‘Oh, well, this is technically not my jurisdiction,’ or ‘This is technically not my problem.’ They’ve got to say something,” said Kurl.

Conservative MP Raquel Dancho, who is the party’s public safety critic, said it’s rare to see such a unified front as the one that has coalesced around bail reform.

“Police are united on this, big city mayors in Ontario are united on this, and certainly every single province and territory is united on this. I can’t think of another situation where those three groups were all united in saying, this is a bail problem, and it’s in the federal authority to fix it,” said Dancho.

In recent years, polling shows that Canadians are getting more fearful about crime and are losing faith in their police forces. According to an Angus Reid Institute survey from October, Canadians are now twice as likely to say there has been an increase in crime in their community than in 2014.The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from Sept. 19-22, 2022 among a representative randomized sample of 5,014 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The number of Canadians who say they have complete confidence or a lot of confidence in the RCMP has fallen from 67 percent in 2014 to 47 percent in 2022.