Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

"I Didn't Do It": How Often, and Why, Do We Send Innocent People to Jail?

Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

"I Didn't Do It": How Often, and Why, Do We Send Innocent People to Jail?

Article excerpt

Justice Miscarried: Inside Wrongful Convictions in Canada

Helena Katz


228 pages, softcover

ISBN 9781554888740


All systems are prone to error and our justice system is no exception.

At one pole, errors in the justice system manifest themselves in "wrongful acquittals," with perpetrators, although duly apprehended and brought before a court, escaping punishment for their crimes.

We hear a lot about such errors, either real or imagined, especially when high-profile cases founder, often because of what are described as technicalities, and a hue and cry goes up for reform of our justice system in the name of law and order.

At the other pole, errors in the justice system manifest themselves as wrongful convictions, with innocent men and women sent to prison to pay for crimes they did not commit. We may hear less about these sorts of errors because they tend to come to light only years after the original convictions and the convictions themselves may generate little or no publicity at the time. When they do come to light, however, they too arouse strong emotions.

Different societies weigh these errors differently. "Blackstone's ratio" encapsulates the traditional English view of the matter with the aphorism, "Better that ten guilty persons escape rather than one innocent suffer" Benjamin Franklin upped the ratio to one hundred guilty to one innocent. Reflecting his authoritarian approach (one arguably reflected more recently in elements of the Bush administration's tactics in its "war on terror"), Bismarck reportedly countered that it is better that ten innocent men suffer than that one guilty man escape.

Canada's criminal justice system clearly reflects the Blackstone view, with the burden imposed on our prosecutors to prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" intended to prohibit conviction of even the "probably guilty."

Yet wrongful convictions have still persisted.

In Justice Miscarried: Inside Wrongful Convictions in Canada, Helena Katz tells the story of a dozen wrongful convictions in Canada spanning the last three decades of the 20th century. She recounts the efforts, notably by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, to expose these miscarriages of justice, to exonerate the innocent men (there are no women's stories in the book) and to provide some restitution for what they have suffered.

The stories are poignant and provide useful reminders of the terrible human cost when justice miscarries in this way. David Milgaard spent 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit and that even the relatively primitive forensic tools available at the time suggested that he could not have committed. Although innocent, he escaped from custody and was shot in the back during this apprehension by the RCMP.

Donald Marshall was imprisoned for over a decade, largely because of racist assumptions by the police investigating his case. During that wasted decade, he suffered serious physical impairment because of poor medical treatment.

Ronald Dalton spent ten years in prison because the police and Crown convinced themselves and a judge that Dalton had strangled his wife, when in fact the evidence should have been clear that she had choked on cereal.

Michel Dumont spent six years in prison based on inaccurate eyewitness testimony, despite the attempts of the eyewitness to recant her erroneous identification.

William Mullins-Johnson spent over a decade in prison convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering his niece, based on a wildly inaccurate interpretation of the little girl's autopsy by forensic pathologists apparently unfamiliar with elementary principles of children's anatomy, probably supplemented by prejudice generated by the fact that he was aboriginal. In fact, the child had died of natural causes, but for the decade of his incarceration, Mullins-Johnson was treated by his jailers and his fellow inmates as a homicidal child molester. …

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