Not guilty

Canada prides itself on having a good “justice” system and, certainly in comparison to that in many countries, including our immediate neighbours to the south, it is extremely good. But, as ongoing cases of wrongful conviction should tell us, it is not good enough.

Last week, the Toronto Police announced that they had found the person responsible for the 1984 rape and murder of nine-year-old Christina Jessop, a case many of us remember well: Calvin Hoover, a neighbour and acquaintance of the Jessop family, who killed himself in 2015.

Redrum the Innocent

It was a dramatic story at the time: a young girl disappeared while at home alone after school in a small town north of Toronto. Guy Paul Morin, who, with his parents, lived close to the Jessops, came to the attention of the police largely because he was “different.” Christine’s mother described him to police as a “weird-type guy” who played the clarinet, which seems to have been enough for the police to consider him a suspect, despite considerable evidence that should have established he could not have committed the crime.

Morin was charged, went on trial and was found not guilty.  The Crown appealed, and the second trial ran for nine months, making it the longest murder trial in Canadian history at the time. The jury found Morin guilty, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He appealed and, in 1995, DNA evidence excluded him as a possible suspect. As the Crown Attorney said:

“The evidence proves as an indisputable scientific fact that Mr. Morin is not guilty.”

Coming full circle?

After 10 years of being thought to be a murderer, Morin was exonerated. A subsequent public inquiry found both police and prosecutorial misconduct in the form of tunnel vision: the police decided Morin was their man and then found the evidence to support their theory, while ignoring evidence that pointed away from him. Along with this, there was bad forensic science, unreliable witness testimony and an over-reliance on evidence provided by jailhouse informants.

For an excellent book on this case, I highly recommend Kirk Makin’s “Redrum the Innocent.”

Unlike many of those who are exonerated after being wrongfully conflicted, Morin has managed to build a reasonable life for himself. But, until last week – 36 years after her murder — neither he nor Christine’s family knew who had killed her. Christine’s mother, Janet, now 78 years old, said, when police visited her with their news:

“It’s over and done with, it’s complete, it’s come full circle . . . . I’ve been praying for an answer since it happened. Those prayers have been answered.”

Too many cases

The Justice for Guy Paul Morin Committee was established after his conviction in 1993. In 1995, it changed its name to the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted and broadened its mandate to take on other cases. Now called Innocence Canada, the organization identifies, advocates and works for the exoneration of people convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Since its inception, the organization has assisted 23 innocent people who have served a total of more than 200 years in prison to be cleared of wrongdoing. Some of those exonerated are household names – Steven Truscott, David Milgaard and more. Others, like Tammy Marquardt, who spent 13 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of killing her young son, based largely on evidence provided by the now-discredited Dr. Charles Smith, are not as well known.

Still a problem

Innocence Canada is currently working on approximately 90 cases, including that of Phillip Tallio. In 1983, when he was 17 years old, Tallio pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the sexual assault and murder of his almost two-year-old cousin. Delavina Mack was assaulted and killed while she slept at her grandparents’ home during a weekend house party her parents and other relatives attended on the Nuxalk Nation in Bella Coola, B.C.  Tallio found her body and alerted her parents to the situation.

His trial lawyer entered a guilty plea on his behalf, to which Tallio says he did not consent. The record of a psychiatric interview in which the psychiatrist claims Tallio confessed to the crime has disappeared. No one other than the psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Pos, and Tallio were present for the interview, and Tallio denies he confessed to anything.

He has been in prison ever since, maintaining his innocence throughout. While he was eligible to apply for parole after 10 years, he has been denied every time, caught in the quandary of all those wrongly convicted. Parole boards expect inmates to take responsibility for their actions and show remorse, but if the person did not commit the offence, they cannot do this and so they do not get parole.

According to Tallio’s legal team:

“There was a miscarriage of justice because the investigation into the murder of Delavina Mack was inadequate and fresh evidence points to a reasonable probability that others perpetrated the crime and covered it up.”

If his conviction is overturned by B.C.’s Court of Appeal, the 37 years Tallio spent in prison will be the longest any Canadian has served for a crime they did not commit.

Think about what that means. What have you accomplished in your life in the past 37 years? What joy have you had? When you have had sorrow, have you been able to share it with friends and family close at hand? Even as we live under the restrictions of the current pandemic, we are able to go for a walk, take a drive to look at the fall colours, decide what we want to eat, wander through a grocery store, talk to others and stay in touch with the world around us through the internet.

Phillip Tallio has had none of that and, even if he is exonerated, he will never get those 37 years back.

Innocence Canada should not have to exist in this country, but it is sorely needed. Please consider supporting its important work with a donation.

One thought on “Not guilty

  1. I’ve just stumbled across this blog; as a woman and aspiring law student, your work is very influencing. Thank you for all that you do.

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