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George Pitt

N.B. to examine DNA in 1993 child killing

George Pitt

FREDERICTON -- New Brunswick's Justice Department is seeking to have evidence from a 1993 child murder case in Saint John re-examined.

Department spokesman Gary Toft says an application will be filed with the Court of Queen's Bench to have the Appeal Court release evidence collected during investigation of the murder of Samantha Toole.

Former Saint John resident, George Pitt was convicted of killing the six-year-old girl and now is serving a life sentence in New Brunswick's Renous penitentiary.

Lawyers with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted want the evidence subjected to modern DNA testing.

If the court agrees, the evidence would be turned over to Saint John Police to have the tests conducted at an independent lab, and the results sent to Pitt's lawyer.

The province will pay to have the tests done.

The application will be filed with the court within the next few days.


N.B. will consider new probe into 1993 child murder

FREDERICTON -- The New Brunswick government says it will consider a request to re-examine evidence from a 15-year-old child murder case.

Gary Toft, spokesman for the Justice Department, said Monday the provincial government has received a letter and a brief from lawyers with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted asking for a comprehensive evaluation of evidence collected during investigation of the 1993 murder of Samantha Toole.

Former Saint John resident, George Pitt, 39, was convicted of killing the six-year-old girl and now is serving a life sentence in New Brunswick's Renous penitentiary.

"Essentially they're asking us to do some retesting," Toft said.

"We're looking at it and we'll respond to them in detail."

Samantha Toole's lifeless body was found on a riverbank in October, 1993, not far from the apartment where she had lived with her mother and Pitt, her mother's boyfriend, in the north end of Saint John.

The little girl had been raped, beaten, choked and then drowned.

The horrific murder sent shockwaves through the New Brunswick port city and lawyers acting for Pitt believe it may have triggered a rush to judgement in Pitt's arrest and conviction.

"He has maintained his innocence since day one," said Erin Breen of St. John's Nfld., who, with her colleague Jerome Kennedy, is looking into the Pitt conviction.

"He's looking for the opportunity to prove his innocence."

The New Brunswick government already has indicated a willingness to DNA test four hairs found on the child's body.

The hairs were not tested at the time of the murder investigation.

But Breen said the request for a re-examination goes far beyond the hairs, which are problematic because so many people handled the girl's corpse.

Breen said the lawyers are hoping the province will agree to re-evaluate much of the physical evidence collected in the case, including such items as a condom and cigarette butts found near the child's body.

Since the riverbank was near a sewage outlet, the items were never tested for DNA.

"We're asking for the exhibits which were collected by the Saint John police at the time and not tested and, additionally, we want those that were tested re-tested using today's technology," Breen said.

She said today's technology for extracting DNA evidence from minute samples is much more sophisticated than it was 15 years ago.

But Toft was non-commital when asked about chances for a major re-examination of the evidence.

He said the province has agreed to check the four hairs, but there is no agreement, at this point, for any more testing.

Toft said evidence from the Toole murder will have to be obtained from the New Brunswick Court of Appeal.

He said the material would then be sent to the Saint John Police Department who would arrange for the testing.

The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, a public interest organization which takes up questionable cases, lists at least 20 Canadian cases of wrongful convictions. The organization believes there could be many more.

The overturning of wrongful convictions is becoming more common thanks to new DNA technology and forensic techniques. There are growing concerns in many countries about the impact on justice systems.

Some of the more prominent wrongful convictions and subsequent exoneration in Canada include names like Donald Marshall, David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin.


Lawyers hope N.B. man may get DNA review

FREDERICTON (CP) -- George Pitt may soon get another chance to prove he wasn't the man who raped and murdered a six-year-old New Brunswick girl 11 years ago.

Pitt, 39, has insisted from the moment of his arrest in 1993 that he did not kill little Samantha Toole, and now lawyers with the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted have taken up his case.

Association member Jerome Kennedy says he plans to present a brief to the New Brunswick government by the end of the month outlining questions and concerns surrounding Pitt's conviction.

"There are questions about the validity of this conviction, there are weaknesses in the Crown case and there is DNA evidence which can answer a lot of questions," Kennedy said in an interview Thursday from his office in St. John's, Nfld.

"If the system is still striving for the truth and since George Pitt is maintaining his innocence, the least we can do is give him the opportunity to prove his innocence."

Kennedy wants the New Brunswick government to re-test several critical pieces of evidence from the crime scene, including hairs, blood and semen.

He said today's DNA technology is far more accurate than it was in the early 1990s and new information may be gleaned from the evidence.

Gary Toft of the New Brunswick Justice Department said the province is awaiting Kennedy's brief.

The provincial government has already indicated it is willing to re-examine some of the evidence, notably four hairs removed from Samantha's body.

"The (New Brunswick) Court of Appeal still has the exhibits from the Pitt file," Toft said.

Samantha Toole's murder in October 1993 sent shock waves through New Brunswick.

The six-year-old's lifeless body was found on a riverbank in the city of Saint John, N.B., not far from the apartment where she had lived with her mother and Pitt, her mother's boyfriend.

The little girl had been raped, beaten, choked and then drowned.

Pitt was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence at the Renous penitentiary near Miramichi, N.B.

He has always maintained his innocence.

"If I made a mistake at all, I made a mistake in making bad friends," Pitt told the court when he was convicted in 1994.

Kennedy believes Pitt may have been a victim of what is known as "tunnel vision" in police investigations.

He said the Saint John police force, which took its time responding to calls for help from Samantha's mother after she realized her child was missing, found itself under pressure for a quick arrest in a particularly horrendous crime.

"George Pitt was the perfect and easy target," Kennedy said.

"We refer to it now as tunnel vision. The police may, as a result of judging the case too quickly, have missed other potential leads and other potential suspects."

The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, a public interest organization that takes up questionable cases, lists at least 20 Canadian cases of wrongful convictions. The organization believes there could be many more.

The overturning of wrongful convictions is becoming more common thanks to new DNA technology and forensic techniques. There are growing concerns in many countries about the impact on justice systems.

Earlier this week, U.S. President George Bush singled out the issue for special mention in his state of the union speech, announcing an increase in the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful convictions.

"Soon I will send Congress a proposal to fund special training for defence counsel in capital cases," he said.

The issue is especially sensitive in the United States where widespread use of the death penalty means wrongful convictions can lead to the state-sanctioned execution of innocent people.

Some of the more prominent wrongful convictions and subsequent exonerations in Canada include names like Donald Marshall, David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin.

Kennedy said it's too early to say whether George Pitt's name could be added to the list of the wrongfully convicted.

"I've tried to ensure that he realizes this is a tough battle," Kennedy said of his conversations with Pitt.

"His attitude should be one of cautious optimism because the task ahead is so difficult."


Four hairs key to clearing convicted child killer

Jerome Kennedy seeks to have evidence tested in bid to exonerate George Pitt

Convicted child killer George Pitt may have been wrongly convicted, says a Newfoundland lawyer who has been reviewing the 1993 murder case.

"Based on my review of the evidence, it's a potential case of wrongful conviction," said defence lawyer Jerome Kennedy.

He said the deciding bits of evidence could be four hairs found on the young victim's body - evidence that has never been tested.

Mr. Kennedy said DNA from the hairs - found on her right thigh, upper left arm and abdomen - may support Mr. Pitt's assertions that he did not kill Samantha Dawn Toole, the six-year-old daughter of his live-in girlfriend.

Even more importantly, the evidence could help zero in on the real killer, said Mr. Kennedy in a telephone interview from his St. John's law office.

But he's not sure whether the Saint John Police Force has kept the evidence.

"I'm assuming they're still around," he said.

Acting Inspector Bill Hanley, the officer in charge of the criminal investigation division of the Saint John Police Force, couldn't reach key personnel on Monday to find out, but promised to find the answer today.

Mr. Kennedy has prepared dozens of pages in support of his case and expects to be ready to write to New Brunswick's Minister of Justice Brad Green by the end of next month. He will ask the government to have the four hairs tested.

The hairs were not among 34 pieces of evidence sent to the crime lab for testing following the 1993 murder.

Mr. Kennedy said appropriate DNA technology "may not have been available in 1993, but it's certainly available now."

He said the government "has nothing to lose" trying to determine who killed Samantha.

Mr. Pitt, now 39 and serving his life sentence at Renous prison near Miramichi, was convicted of first-degree murder in Samantha's death but has always maintained his innocence.

The six-year-old's lifeless body was found in a flimsy nightgown at the edge of the St. John River not far from her Bridge Street apartment. She had been raped, beaten and left to drown.

Mr. Pitt lost all of his appeals, including one to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997.

Mr. Kennedy, on behalf of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, has been studying Mr. Pitt's case for five months to see whether there are grounds for an appeal under Section 696 of the Criminal Code of Canada. The section allows the attorney general to order an appeal when all other legal options have been exhausted.

Mr. Kennedy has spoken at length with Mr. Pitt, visited the crime scene, and reviewed the disclosure file, a transcript of the two-week trial and how advances in science could help the legal effort.

At the heart of his case is a belief that the police "botched" the investigation. He said the police were so single-minded in their belief that Mr. Pitt was the killer that they didn't explore leads that may have pointed to other suspects.

One example, he said, was not sending a comforter to be analyzed for seminal fluid.

The comforter became an integral part of the Crown's case against Mr. Pitt. For one, a square centimetre of blood on the comforter matched Samantha's. Just as importantly, Samantha's mother saw Mr. Pitt washing the comforter at 4 a.m. when she returned home from a night of drinking.

Officers explained that the comforter wasn't sent for testing because they fully expected to find Mr. Pitt's seminal fluid on a comforter he shared with Samantha's mother, Gloria Toole.

Mr. Kennedy said not testing the comforter means that semen from other potential suspects was never explored.

Mr. Kennedy pointed out that many of these shortcomings were mentioned at trial by defence lawyer Henrik Tonning and during the appeal process by Gary Miller.

He said he'll be able to give the minister of justice "lots of reasons" to have evidence tested for the first time or re-tested using more advanced DNA technology.

"I expect the New Brunswick government will be very reluctant," said Mr. Kennedy.