Monday, December 21, 2009

Manitoba confronts fourth possible wrongful conviction

A Manitoba judge has given an eight-year-old girl her grandfather back and at the same time, he has put the province's beleaguered justice system under further scrutiny. An emotional Frank Ostrowski walked out of the downtown Winnipeg Law Courts Friday afternoon, tasting freedom for the first time in 23 years and vowing never to return to prison. Queen's Bench Justice Colleen Suche agreed to release Ostrowski, 60, on bail while the federal government studies whether he's been a victim of a wrongful murder conviction.

"I've wished every single Christmas for my dad," Ostrowski's daughter, Amber, said outside court as she held him closely. She was even more excited for her daughter, who she phoned at school minutes after learning the bail verdict. "I told her I have a very big Christmas present for her. She said 'Grandpa?' I told her that yes, Grandpa was coming home," she said. The reunited family planned to spend Friday afternoon hanging holiday decorations before heading out for a buffet dinner.

Overshadowed by the Ostrowski's joy was the fact serious questions are being raised about yet another Manitoba murder conviction. Kyle Unger, James Driskell and Thomas Sophonow have already had their names cleared after serving lengthy stints behind bars. Ostrowski's prosecution was handled by now-retired Crown attorney George Dangerfield, a man whose professional record includes at least three murder cases ending in claims of wrongful prosecution. Kyle Unger, James Driskell and Thomas Sophonow were all convicted of murder under Dangerfield's watch. Unger walked away a free man in October after spending 14 years in prison for the June 1990 slaying of Brigitte Grenier, 16.

Driskell was convicted of the 1990 slaying of Perry Harder. In 2003, he was released from prison on bail after new evidence came forward showing he did not receive a fair trial. He was awarded $4 million for spending 13 years behind bars.

Convicted of the 1981 murder of waitress Barbara Stoppel, Sophonow was exonerated in 2000 and compensated following a judicial inquiry into his case in 2001. Evidence at the inquiry showed Dangerfield and other Crown attorneys failed to disclose evidence that would have attacked the credibility of Crown witnesses. Sophonow was awarded $2.6 million in compensation for being wrongfully convicted.

"The justice system worked today," James Lockyer of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted said outside court Friday. "Slowly but surely, we're setting right our old wrongs. Manitobans should take faith for that." Lockyer believes the federal review of Ostrowski's case could take up to two years. In the meantime, he has a list of other Manitoba murder convictions he plans to sit down to review with provincial justice officials in the near future, believing the book has not yet been closed on wrongful convictions. Lockyer wouldn't say how many cases are under suspicion, but that the most recent is from 13 years ago.

Ostrowski, a former hair stylist turned drug dealer, has maintained his innocence since the day he was arrested in the 1986 killing of Robert Neiman over a drug debt. He was convicted in 1987 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life behind bars with no chance for parole for 25 years. The Crown argued at trial Ostrowski feared Nieman was "ratting" on him to police. Two other men were found guilty of Nieman's killing. Robert Dunkley was convicted of pulling the trigger and continues to serve a life sentence. Jose Luis Correia was granted "faint hope" release last year and later deported to his native Portugal.

Ostrowski vowed Friday never to return to prison. "The evidence is too powerful. My lawyer has proven the justice system failed me," he said.

Lockyer has argued there is considerable evidence Ostrowski got a raw deal at his trial in that important information was not disclosed by the Crown and police. The main issue is a secret deal key witness Matthew Lovelace made with federal authorities to testify against Ostrowski in order to get a cocaine trafficking charge against him withdrawn so he wouldn't go to jail. Lockyer said the offer should have been disclosed to the jury so they had a full picture of Lovelace's credibility.

Suche said Friday there is no evidence Lovelace was aware of any deal in exchange for his testimony — but that doesn't change the fact it shouldn't have been kept secret. "Lovelace presented himself as an individual who simply told what he knew, had nothing to gain by testifying as far as he was aware, and was motivated only by an interest in seeing justice done," she said. Suche said concerns raised in Ostrowski's case are not "nearly so compelling" as those in the Driskell or Unger cases. "It might be fair to say that thus far, the information has raised as many questions as it has answered," said Suche. "However, the questions raised are very serious and go to the heart of the Crown's case, being that they relate in a fundamental way to the credibility of a crucial witness and to trial fairness."

The judge said Ostrowski had earned the right to a release. "He is 60 years of age and in declining health. If he is innocent, the years taken from him can never be restored," said Suche. "If the minister denies his application for review, he will return to prison to serve the balance of his sentence. In all of the circumstances, I conclude that it is not in the public interest that Mr. Ostrowski remain in custody."

Don Slough, Manitoba's assistant deputy attorney general, said his department was "satisfied" with Suche's decision to release Ostrowski, despite the fact the Crown was opposed to bail. "There has been a public airing of the facts and it's brought a lot of clarity," he said. Slough said it's too early to declare Ostrowski a victim of wrongful conviction. He said further scrutiny of cases from Lockyer is also welcomed. "There may be more and we'll deal with them on a case-by-case basis," said Slough. "It speaks more to an era that's long past. Many things have changed — disclosure issues, the way we approach cases. There have been many, many changes since then."

Ostrowski will live with his daughter and granddaughter under strict conditions while his legal status is in limbo, including a $50,000 surety and a nightly curfew of 10 p.m.

Original report here

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