Tuesday, September 15, 2009

One truth behind wrongful convictions

His supporters call him the world's longest-serving wrongly convicted person. During his 31 years in Ontario prisons, Romeo Phillion’s story, among other things, has highlighted the relevance of police and prosecutorial accountability in wrongful conviction cases.

What specifically did the case highlight? -- a 1986 police report, allegedly suppressed at Phillion’s trial and subsequent appeals showing that Ottawa police investigated and confirmed his alibi.

In 2001, in conjunction with the Osgoode Hall Innocence Project, Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) lawyers submitted an application to the Minister of Justice under section 696.1 of the Criminal Code on behalf of Romeo Phillion. Phillion spent 31 years in prison for the 1967 stabbing death of Ottawa firefighter Leopold Roy.

In 1972, Phillion was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. There was no physical or circumstantial evidence tying Phillion to the crime. The sole evidence was his recanted confession. Five years after the murder Phillion, unexpectedly, confessed to the stabbing when he was arrested for a robbery. In the last few years, psychiatrists have brought to light the phenomenon of false confessions. In general, false confessions are not always promoted by one’s internal knowledge or actual guilt, but sometimes motivated by external forces, such as duress, diminished capacity, and a misunderstanding of the situation.

On March 5th, 2009, in a 2-1 judgment, the Ontario Court of Appeal quashed Phillion’s conviction for the 1967 murder saying an undisclosed police report that appeared to provide Phillion with an alibi could have left jurors with reasonable doubt regarding his guilt. The report, which came to light in 1998, when Phillion was still in prison, confirmed Phillion was at a Trenton gas station 150 miles away with a broken down car just hours before the murder. Ottawa Detective John McCombie, who prepared the 1968 report, told the Appeal Court last year that he discovered the information which contradicted evidence Phillion was at the gas station. However, no police occurrence report or other evidence exists to corroborate McCombie’s claims.

While the report was not required to be provided to the defence under disclosure practices in place in 1972, when Phillion was tried, "the interests of justice" today require that it be admitted into evidence, the court said. "I find it virtually inconceivable that ... (Crown attorney Malcolm) Lindsay and Ottawa police officers involved in the investigation would have participated in prosecuting the appellant for the Roy murder knowing that he was innocent of the crime," Justice Michael Moldaver said.

The Ontario Court of Appeal overturned his conviction earlier this year, after his lawyers argued that the additional evidence might have led to his acquittal. The Court of Appeal stopped short of entering an acquittal, choosing, instead, to order a new trial. The court’s ruling left the decision on how to proceed in the hands of the Crown. In July, the Attorney General decided to withdraw the charges. Phillion’s lawyers, however, want an outright acquittal.

Last month, as reported by the Ottawa Citizen, Phillon’s lawyers made an application to an Ottawa court seeking to have their client arraigned for murder in attempt to deny the Attorney General the ability to quietly withdraw the charge. Instead, they want to Phillion to be indicted, allowing him to plead not guilty.

The application is expected to be heard by Superior Court Justice Lynn Ratushny in early February of 2011.

Posted by Andrea Anderson (Windsor Law 2009)

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