October 2nd marks a peculiar international commemoration: Wrongful Conviction Day, set aside to remember men and women who were done in by a flawed criminal justice system.
The good news is that some of these unfortunate souls have been freed. Even better news is that — as a payback for their pain and suffering — a number have picked up compensation cheques, courtesy of taxpayers.
Governments can award apologies and money but never lost time.
Not all those who have been wrongfully convicted have received financial compensation. Here’s a shocker: Governments have sometimes ignored court orders for compensation, effectively screwing the victim all over again. Do shenanigans like that happen in democracies like Canada, you ask?
They sure do.
Then there are those who’ll never again feel the pain of a faulty judicial system. They quietly left prison on a gurney covered by a white sheet.
For those reading this article outside Canada, you might now see my country in a whole new light. That’s not my intention. All things considered, Canada isn’t a bad place — but its criminal justice system sure could use some work.
There are far more judicial screw-ups in Canada than people care to admit. The reason is simple: Should Canadians ever face serious criminal charges, they want to believe they’ll get a fair shake. They want to believe that things are on the up-and-up.
[Photo: David Milgaard shortly after his release from prison. The former prisoner travelled to Alberta to meet with the author. He’s pictured at the author’s desk at CBC Radio, Edmonton.]
REPORTING ON PROSECUTORIAL MIS-STEPS
Know that it’s not always easy for reporters to reveal prosecutorial misconduct. It’s my belief that the mainstream media has a desperate need to protect the status quo … as if their jobs depended on it. Wait. The status quo controls corporate media. Never mind.
Peasants in the Third World will pay homage to their filthy-rich dictators. These poor bastards know their place and their place is not to challenge the status quo.
That mindset is not limited to developing countries. In the early 1990s, I was working at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] in Edmonton, and on the phone with an editor at CBC National News in Toronto. We were discussing a story about a long-serving prisoner who, in 1970, was a kid in his mid-teens when he got a life sentence for the rape and murder of a young woman.
For two decades, the ‘killer’ steadfastly maintained his innocence.
He once took off while out on a prison pass. Police looked everywhere for the guy — and when they tracked him down, they shot him in the rear end.
How did that CBC editor assess things? “Byron,” he said, “for all we know, the little fucker killed her.” Turns out, that little fucker was innocent. Ooops. He went into prison as a 16-year-old, handcuffed and shackled, but walked out a middle-aged man.
After he was finally set free, two decades later, the man — who was a basket case — got an official ‘sorry, so long and good luck’ from the Government of Canada. Thanks to widespread media attention, the falsely-convicted picked up millions of dollars in compensation for a judicial boo-boo that had seriously messed up his life.
Today the ex-con struggles to find himself. The man, who suffers from bipolar, lost much of his settlement money playing the stock market. He also went through two busted marriages. He now ‘gives back’ by helping a disabled person.
A quarter of a century after the murder was committed, the real murderer was charged, convicted and sent packing to a federal penitentiary. In May 2015, the sex killer was wheeled out of a prison in British Columbia after losing a battle with cancer. He’ll rape and kill no more.
What’s really repugnant about that particular miscarriage of justice was that just one year after the youngster was marched off to the Big House, someone remarked to the Chief Crown Prosecutor, Serge Kujawa, “Looks like the kid didn’t do it,” to which Mr. Kujawa responded — with absolutely no concern he might have a wrongful conviction on his hands — “Fuck him!!” Nice guy, that Serge.
Mr. Crown got his wish. The system did indeed screw the teen — for more than two decades. For his professional misconduct, Mr. Kujawa was not sent to prison. He wasn’t even disciplined. Sorry, that doesn’t happen in Canada.
In a way, Kujawa was in his own prison as illustrated by the number of trips he made to liquor stores. If this son-of-a-bitch had been working in the United States, he would’ve eaten prison food for a few years. And his beverage of choice would have gone from vodka to shaving lotion.
Bureaucrats who knowingly keep innocent people behind bars are to the criminal justice system what venereal disease is to sex. Sorry for showing my bias, but that’s how I feel about these status quo ass-kissers who inflict so much pain on innocent people and their families.
MILGAARD, ETC, ETC, ETC …
Life isn’t fair. I get that. Our judicial system should be fair — but it isn’t. That I don’t get.
Some of the most terrible miscarriages of justice in Canada nearly destroyed the lives of David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin, Donald Marshall Junior and Steven Truscott, to name but four. These men were found guilty of murder and given long prison terms. Turns out, they were innocent — proof that “every now and then” the justice system screws up.
It’s a system that — like the drug dealers and thieves it has on trial from time to time — simply can’t be trusted.
Think of a flawed criminal justice system as a lottery you never want to win.
The problem is that innocent people sometimes pay for the mistakes of others … and they pay dearly.
David Milgaard and company went through judicial nightmares, as documented by the Toronto-based Innocence Canada, formerly the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted, known by its acronym, AIDWYC [pronounced “aid-wick”].
What’s stunning is that the four prisoners I mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. There are more wrongfully convicted victims … how many, Lord only knows. The fact that Innocence Canada exists raises some serious questions about the effectiveness of Canada’s judiciary system.
When it comes to screwed-up murder convictions, Canada’s track record can only be described as disgraceful. The official count for wonky murder convictions in this country is around two dozen.
What’s it like to be wrongfully convicted and stuck in a penitentiary for days on end? I’ve never been in that position, thank God, but here’s how I imagine it to be [please forgive me for waxing poetry here] …
Wrongly-convicted prisoners begin their day — just like the previous 60 or 6,000 days — by gripping the steel bars of their cells. They’re angry, and for good reason. They’re doing “hard time” for something they didn’t do. And although they realize the system has failed them — and others — they still cling to hope that a good lawyer or an advocacy group will find a “smoking gun” that will get them out.
They are the “living dead.” They’re so desperate they buy into any promise, real or otherwise. Beaten up by a system that has sucked the life out of them, they have become so disillusioned that they simply give up. Hapless, helpless and knowing all too well that the system protects itself — even more than bad cops and bad lawyers protect themselves — they’ve resigned to the cold realization they’ll likely die behind bars.
Perhaps the most abhorrent aspect of Canada’s judicial system is that should an innocent prisoner not make a false confession, they’re likely not getting out. Or, if they are released, it’s a lot later than what it should have been. One way or the other, they’re hooped.
In the early 90s, when I first got involved in the case of David Milgaard — brilliantly chronicled, I might add, in the post ‘Dead Man Under a Pool Table’ — a dreadful thought washed over me: Milgaard might not be alone; there could be other poor souls like him.
Could that really be, I wondered? Turns out, David Milgaard — then a convict whose prison nickname was ‘Shuffles’ — had plenty of company.
Here’s the link for ‘Dead Man Under a Pool Table’ and the Milgaard story … https://byronchristopher.org/2015/01/06/dead-man-under-a-pool-table/