For many Canadians, the justice system exists in the background, a vague abstraction that exists to maintain order and keep people safe-a benign, trustworthy institution. This is not, unfortunately, always the case. It is, like all human creations, an imperfect thing, and when it fails it can have horrifying repercussions.
In the last 20 years, there has been a growing sense of awareness about some of the weaknesses of Canada’s justice system. High-profile cases-like those of Steven Truscott, who was sentenced to death at age 14 for a murder he did not commit and only acquitted 48 years later, in 2007, and David Milgaard, who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1970 and served 23 years before finally being exonerated in 1997-have raised questions about how certain we can be about a person’s guilt.
To draw attention to the plight of those wrongfully convicted, and to shed some light on why wrongful convictions happen, the Association for the Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) hosted a public lecture followed by an open reception at the Upper Canada Law Society in Toronto, Oct. 2, in honour of Wrongful Conviction Day. The lecture, given jointly by acclaimed criminal lawyer and AIDWYC founding director James Lockyer and York University’s Professor Tim Moore, considered some of the most common reasons why wrongful convictions happen and how they can be avoided.
The event was an emotionally charged one; the audience included Joyce Milgaard (mother of the aforementioned David Milgaard) and Robert Baltovich (who was wrongly convicted of murdering his girlfriend in 1992 and served eight years in prison). As Lockyer and Moore explained the different ways that human error can influence the administration of justice, one thing became very clear: Canada’s legal system is fallible, sometimes tragically so.
Among those who attended was the Rev. Sharon Dunlop, an Anglican chaplain who serves on the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, a faith-based coalition working to foster a more community-based approach to justice by addressing the needs of both victims and offenders. Dunlop, who works at the Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ont., firmly believes that churches and people of faith need to be more knowledgeable about the failures of the Canadian justice system. “In order to better understand the importance of the work of AIDWYC, we need to ask ourselves how we would feel if we had been wrongfully convicted and were languishing in a darkened prison environment while fighting to clear our name,” she said in an interview. “We need to have some sense of the frustrating and sometimes hopelessness these people must feel. We need to understand that we, too, could be in that same position-no one is immune from being suspect and under scrutiny.”
Dunlop emphasized the vulnerability of all people to misunderstandings or abuses before the law, adding that this should make people even more compassionate toward those who are serving prison sentences. Wrongful convictions occur for a variety of reasons, said Dunlop. “Suspects may be vulnerable due to their economic status, emotional or intellectual impairment, visible minority [status]; police agencies may want to quickly wrap up their case; some prosecutors may have a bias; mistaken identity of eye-witness accounts; mistakes in forensic science.”
The staggering number of seemingly minor things that can lead to a wrongful conviction was one of the main points Lockyer stressed in his lecture.
At this time, the Anglican church has only an informal connection to these issues, one created by the many Anglican clergy and laypeople who work in prison ministry and human rights advocacy. But Henriette Thompson, the Anglican Church of Canada’s director of public witness and social and ecological justice, noted in an email that, ” ‘Justice and corrections’ and ‘truth and reconciliation’ are two public witness priorities in my work and the General Synod’s work. Wrongful conviction brings the two together.”
Over the course of its 21 years of existence, AIDWYC has secured the exoneration of 18 wrongly convicted persons. No one knows how many more are languishing in cells across the country, waiting for their innocence to be proven.
This, said Dunlop, “makes Matthew 25:3-‘I was in prison and you visited me’-even more important for us.”
Editor’s note: The headline on this story has been changed to reflect the Rev. Dunlop’s title of deacon.