Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Punish those responsible for wrongful convictions, forum hears

Punishing those responsible for wrongful convictions and skepticism of authorities would help prevent miscarriages of justice, a legal forum heard Saturday. The conference, held just two days after Ontario's top court quashed a man's 37-year-old murder conviction, also heard Canada needs an independent agency to investigate claims that an innocent person is languishing in jail.

The forum at York University, organized by the school's Criminology Society, featured three men who fought lengthy battles to have their murder convictions overturned, and one still fighting to clear his name.

One of them, William Mullins-Johnson, who spent 12 years in prison after being convicted of raping and suffocating his four-year-old niece, said those involved in wrongful convictions need to be held to account. Mullins-Johnson was ultimately exonerated after experts concluded the young girl had died of natural causes and no crime had occurred. "Injustice has been corrected, but there is no justice served here," he said. "Hold the ones that did this to people like us criminally responsible and send them to jail."

Even so, Mullins-Johnson doubted anyone could devise a fool-proof method of preventing wrongful convictions. "They're built into the system," he said.

Rob Baltovich, who was acquitted last year of killing his girlfriend in Toronto after he spent eight years in prison, said people have to "think critically" in cases involving the criminal justice system, he said. "Don't just take the word of a person in authority. Ask questions." Baltovich warned against tunnel vision - when police and prosecutors focus on a suspect to the exclusion of others and often taint witnesses in the process. They then tend to ignore evidence an accused is innocent, he said, because no one wants to admit a mistake might have been made. "Who wants to take responsibility for that?" Baltovich said.

University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach said the main reasons for wrongful convictions are faulty witness identification, witnesses such as paid informants who lie and flawed expert evidence. Roach said Canada needs a publicly funded, independent agency - along the lines of the Criminal Cases Review Commission in Britain - which has the power to delve into possible miscarriages of justice. Such an agency would take the politics out of such probes and ease pressure on groups such as the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted, which lack the manpower and finances to deal with a myriad of cases, he said.

Ottawa has so far refused to set up such a body. "That is just wrong," Roach said.

Alain Olivier, a Quebecer who spent more than eight years in jail in Thailand for drug dealing after initially being sentenced to death, said he was still fighting to clear his name. Olivier maintains he was the victim of an RCMP sting gone wrong - that police knew they had mistaken him for his twin brother but refused to admit it. Public pressure is critical in forcing authorities to take another look at such cases, he said. "They all thought I would die in Thailand," he said. "They try to exhaust everybody until somebody dies."

Also on the panel was Romeo Phillion, who initially confessed to killing an Ottawa firefighter in 1967, then spent 31 years in prison protesting he had nothing to do with the murder. Phillion's murder conviction was quashed on Thursday and a new trial ordered.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

No comments: