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Antonio Lamer Inquiry

Newfoundland inquiry to probe murder convictions

A former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada has been asked to solve one of the great mysteries of the nation's judicial system -- why so many wrongful-murder convictions have occurred in Newfoundland.

Antonio Lamer has been given almost two years to delve into the wrongful convictions of Greg Parsons, Ronald Dalton, and Randy Druken.

"[Former] chief justice Lamer has the highest credentials," Newfoundland Justice Minister Kelvin Parsons said in the surprise announcement yesterday.

"I have every confidence he will complete a thorough and comprehensive inquiry."

Mr. Lamer said in an interview that he will be on the alert for broad patterns of error that betray systemic problems.

"When you have three cases, then maybe you are starting to get a picture of something," he said.

"Or, maybe it was just three individual boo-boos. If there has been a systemic failure, I will flag it and make recommendations to correct it."

Mr. Lamer said that while the cases are new to him, he hopes to hear testimony from a broad range of those people involved. "I must admit, I didn't know about them [the cases]," he said. "I'm told they were the subject of great interest in Newfoundland."

Jerome Kennedy

Jerome Kennedy -- a defence lawyer involved in all three cases -- said an inquiry into the stunning rate of miscarriages is long overdue, considering that Newfoundland has a population of 500,000 and an annual homicide rate of less than a dozen.

"The fact they have gone outside the province is certainly what we wanted," he said. However, Mr. Kennedy said he will remain "cautiously optimistic" until he hears how extensive the parameters of the inquiry will be.

If set up properly, he said, the inquiry will find ample evidence of police tunnel vision, overzealous prosecution and a reliance on flimsy evidence and unsavoury jailhouse informants. Some of the police and prosecutors were involved in two or all three of the cases, Mr. Kennedy said.

He said Mr. Lamer will also discover an startling anomaly: In each of the cases, the Newfoundland Court of Appeal found sufficient error to order a new trial.

"When we get to the appellate-court stage, the system appears to have worked incredibly," Mr. Kennedy said. "An inquiry should also look at the positives."

Greg Parsons was convicted of the 1991 murder of his mother, Catherine Carroll. The evidence centred on superficially damning hearsay as well as the lyrics of a song Mr. Parsons once wrote, which included the words: "Kill your parents."

Mr. Parsons was exonerated in 1998 on the basis of DNA tests. Last month, a former friend of the Parsons family was convicted of the killing.

Randy Druken was convicted in 1995 of killing his girlfriend, Brenda Marie Young. After five years behind bars, he was exonerated after DNA tests found that a cigarette that burned a hole at the murder scene was not his. A jailhouse informant who testified against Mr. Druken later admitted he had lied.

Ron Dalton was convicted in 1988 of strangling his wife to death. He served nine years before being freed after forensic evidence showed the victim had choked to death on a piece of food.

His charge remains in legal limbo because of a stay of proceedings. However, activists in the wrongful-conviction movement believe it is merely a matter of time before he is exonerated.

Inquiry into wrongful convictions in Newfoundland set to begin Tuesday

ST. JOHN'S, Nfld. (CP) - Ronald Dalton spent almost nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

On Tuesday, Dalton will testify on the first day of a sweeping public inquiry into three cases of wrongful conviction that have tainted Newfoundland's justice system. The former bank manager from Gander, Nfld., was convicted in 1989 of killing his wife. The case against him was based largely on testimony from a pathologist, who had determined that Brenda Dalton was strangled.

Ronald Dalton maintained his innocence, saying his wife had choked on cereal. He immediately filed an appeal but it didn't come before the court until 1997.

After hearing from several forensic pathologists that Brenda Dalton had in fact choked to death, the Newfoundland Court of Appeal released Dalton from prison and ordered a new trial.

He was acquitted in June 2000.

Dalton has said he welcomes a public inquiry. But he's disappointed that the man leading the inquest will not be able to investigate why he was convicted in the first place.

Antonio Lamer, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, is only required to determine why Dalton's appeal took so long.

"Come August, it will be 15 years that my wife is dead and buried," Dalton told The Canadian Press after the province announced the inquiry.

"My sister and her husband raised our three children while I was in prison. I was still away from them for 10 years. You don't get back that kind of time."

But Dalton's case is not unique.

In fact, critics of Newfoundland's justice system have long complained that the province has had an unusually large number of wrongful murder convictions, considering it saw just one murder in 2001, six in 2000 and two in 2003.

Two years after Dalton was convicted, Newfoundland was shocked by another high-profile murder case that eventually turned into a legal fiasco.

Gregory Parsons was 19 in 1991 when he found his mother dead in her St. John's home. She had been stabbed dozens of times.

In 1994, after a series of delays and legal wrangling, a jury convicted him of second-degree murder. He served six weeks before he was granted bail pending an appeal.

Parsons was later exonerated by DNA evidence and was formally acquitted in 1998.

Then there was the sad case of Randy Druken, who in 1995 was convicted of the 1993 murder of his girlfriend Brenda Marie Young, largely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant.

He spent almost six years in prison before he was granted an appeal in 1999. The Crown consented to a new trial after the informant recanted, saying police had pressured him to make a false statement.

The Crown eventually stayed the charges.

When he announced the inquiry last March, provincial Justice Minister Kelvin Parsons admitted public confidence in the justice system had been shaken by these cases.

"Someone was convicted who was innocent," said Parsons, no relation to Greg Parsons. "We want to know is there anything systemic in our criminal justice system that made this happen?"

The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, an advocacy group based in Toronto, says the inquiry will have an impact on the entire country.

"There is no criminal law just for Newfoundland," said Mel Green, an association lawyer who has applied to participate in the inquiry.

"The authority and reputation and integrity of the commission and the prominence of the inquiry proceeding itself will ultimately lead to reforms across the country."

The first phase of the inquiry will deal solely with Dalton's appeal.

Over the next two weeks, the commission will hear from eight witnesses, including court officials and the former director of public prosecutions for the province, Judge Colin Flynn.

"Presumably there may be some (recommendations) made at the end as to how the process can be improved," said Nick Avis, the commission lawyer. "That's the whole idea of it: to see that these kinds of things don't happen again."

Both Dalton and Druken have launched lawsuits against the province and the police. Last year, Parsons received an apology from the government and $650,000 in compensation.

Lamer can make recommendations for compensation but he cannot assign any blame for the botched cases.

The inquiry is expected to continue until next summer, if not longer.

"There's a vast amount of information," Avis said. "It's somewhat staggering."

The police file for the Parsons case alone takes up seven filing cabinets.

All three men will be have lawyers present at the inquiry, as will the Attorney General's Department, the director of public prosecutions office, and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

Several provinces have held inquiries into wrongful convictions.

David Milgaard was awarded $10 million in 1999 after spending 23 years in prison for a Saskatchewan murder he didn't commit.

A Nova Scotia royal commission in the late 1980s ordered that Donald Marshall Jr. be given $200,000 and a lifetime pension for spending 11 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

Most recently, Thomas Sophonow was awarded $2.6 million following a public inquiry in Manitoba. Sophonow spent nearly four years in prison for the murder of 16-year-old Winnipeg waitress Barbara Stoppel.

Wrongful-conviction probe frustrates lawyer: Says Nfld. government neutered inquiry

An inquiry that begins tomorrow into three Newfoundland wrongful-murder convictions has the makings of a whitewash aimed at shielding those who are to blame, a lawyer for the three men says.

Lawyer Jerome Kennedy accused the Newfoundland government of cunningly neutering the commissioner of the inquiry, former Chief Justice of Canada Antonio Lamer, by slashing his powers.

"This commission of inquiry, if it is to be effective, must examine how three men in a province the size of Newfoundland could be wrongfully convicted of murder during a six-year period," Mr. Kennedy wrote in an angry brief to Judge Lamer on the weekend.

"To do otherwise would be to embarrass the administration of justice and, quite simply, waste taxpayer's money. The bottom line . . . is that the inquiry must be done right -- or not at all."

Judge Lamer will be walking into a hornet's nest when he arrives in St. John's today to launch his probe. Mr. Kennedy states that the inquiry has no hope of meeting the standards set by previous inquiries into the wrongful convictions of Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin and Thomas Sophonow.

Mr. Kennedy, a towering figure among advocates for the wrongfully convicted, successfully won the freedom of Ronald Dalton, Randy Druken and Gregory Parsons after years of legal battle. Two were acquitted of murder; the charge against the third was stayed after gaping flaws surfaced in the case against him.

In his 50-page brief, Mr. Kennedy condemned the province for lacking the courage to simply admit the men were not guilty. The province called the inquiry only because of intense public pressure, he said, and has since ensured it will be ineffective.

Mr. Kennedy argued that the inquiry ought to have provided an opportunity for the three men to have their names cleared publicly. That cannot happen, he said, since establishing their innocence is not part of Mr. Lamer's mandate.

The terms of reference for the Dalton phase of the inquiry were particularly galling to Mr. Kennedy. The province asked Mr. Lamer to find why Mr. Dalton's appeal took eight years to be heard.

The Lamer inquiry cannot hope to get to the heart of systemic problems in the justice system or recommend compensation for the three men under this sort of restriction, Mr. Kennedy said.

"Without an acceptance of his innocence, the inquiry serves no practical purpose," he wrote.

Mr. Kennedy alleged that the province is attempting to keep a lid on information that could increase its liability in lawsuits the three men have launched.

"The point that still appears to be lost on this present government is that we have three innocent men whose lives have been devastated by the actions of the state.

"Both they and their families deserve answers," he said. "Truth and accountability must be the goals of this inquiry, and let the chips fall where they may."

Mr. Kennedy said he is pinning his hopes on Opposition Leader Danny Williams winning a provincial election that is in the offing. "Mr. Williams has defended successfully in a number of murder trials," Mr. Kennedy said. "He knows first-hand the emotional and psychological costs of being charged with murder. A new government can change, replace or modify the terms of reference and would not necessarily be bound by the present terms of reference."

Mr. Dalton was acquitted of murdering his wife at a retrial in 2000 after spending eight years in prison. Forensic evidence pointed toward her having choked on cereal, rather than having been strangled. Mr. Parsons was acquitted of murdering his mother after DNA evidence showed another man was the killer. Mr. Druken's 1995 conviction for murdering his girlfriend was stayed by the Crown two years ago after the Newfoundland Court of Appeal ordered a retrial because a key witness had lied.

Newfoundland begins probe into wrongful conviction

ST. JOHN'S - A Newfoundland man who spent nearly nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit says a cloud of suspicion still hangs over him.

On the first day of a public inquiry into three cases of wrongful conviction in the province, Ronald Dalton said that although a jury acquitted him of his wife's murder, there are justice officials who still refer to him as "wrongfully acquitted."

"There's still some cloud of suspicion hanging over me," Dalton told inquiry commissioner Antonio Lamer on Tuesday.

It has been five years since he was released from prison and he is still trying to put his life back together, Mr. Dalton said, the first witness in a sweeping inquiry that will continue for most of the next year.

"I'll always know there'll be people out there thinking that I got away with murder and that's not going to go away. ... I'm not going to get back the 15 years that I lost," Mr. Dalton said outside the hearing room.

"There's no amount of compensation or apologies that will deal with that."

Over the past decade, Newfoundland and Labrador's justice system has been shaken by three murder cases overturned on appeal.

Mr. Dalton was arrested and charged the day after his wife was found dead on Aug. 16, 1988. He was convicted the following year.

Although an appeal was filed within weeks, it was not until 1998 that the Newfoundland Court of Appeal heard his case. Mr. Dalton was released on bail pending an appeal and acquitted in June, 2000.

The other two cases involved Gregory Parsons, 19 in 1991 when he found his mother stabbed to death in her St. John's home, and Randy Druken, imprisoned in the 1993 murder of his girlfriend.

Mr. Parsons was convicted three years later of second-degree murder and served six weeks before being granted bail pending an appeal. He was later exonerated by DNA evidence and was formally acquitted in 1998. Earlier this year, a former friend was sentenced for the crime.

A year after Mr. Parsons was convicted, Mr. Druken went to prison for the 1993 murder of his girlfriend, Brenda Marie Young. He was convicted largely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant and spent almost six years in prison before he was granted an appeal in 1999.

As in Mr. Dalton's case, said his lawyer, Robert Simmonds, the Crown "refuses to recognize their innocence."

After 15 years in the cogs of the Canadian justice system, he was as articulate as any lawyer while testifying at Judge Lamer's inquiry.

Over several hours, he described the difficulties he had dealing with lawyers, the legal aid system and prison officials as he tried to appeal his conviction. He said his family exhausted all of its savings paying for his trial defence.

While imprisoned in a federal institution on the mainland (there is no federal prison in Newfoundland), he said, it sometimes took months for his lawyer or legal aid to respond to his letters. He could rarely use the telephone and could not meet in person with lawyers, he said.

Although Mr. Dalton appeared at the hearings, he said he was reluctant to participate because under the terms set out by the government Judge Lamer will not be able to examine why he was convicted in the first place.

He said, however, that the commissioner will be able to make a recommendation for compensation for Mr. Dalton and Mr. Druken, both of whom are suing the province and police. Last year, Mr. Parsons received an apology from the government and $650,000 in compensation.

Appeal delay questioned

For seven years, Ronald Dalton's notice to appeal his second-degree murder conviction in relation to the death of his wife sat idle at the Newfoundland Supreme Court of Appeal.

The 47-year-old, who spent more than eight years in prison before having his appeal heard, explained to a commission of inquiry Tuesday that the lack of activity on his appeal had nothing to do with him.

The hundreds of pages of correspondence between Dalton, lawyers, the Court of Appeal and any other official of justice he could think of is proof the father of three had exhausted all avenues in an effort to have his appeal heard.

Dalton told the inquiry that between the time his appeal was filed, in 1989, and 1996, not one single piece of paper was filed on furthering his appeal. In 1996, Dalton, who said he was tired of waiting for lawyers to take some action, filed documents himself in the hopes of getting a hearing.

The inquiry was called by provincial Justice Minister Kelvin Parsons in March to look into the separate murder convictions of Dalton, Randy Druken and Gregory Parsons - three men who between 1989 and 1995 were convicted of brutal murders. Evidence eventually overturned their convictions, but not before Dalton and Druken spent years in prison for crimes they didn't commit, and Parsons spent 10 years under a cloud of suspicion.

Commissioner Antonio Lamer, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, began hearing evidence Tuesday into why there was such a delay into Dalton's appeal.

In response to questions by Dalton's counsel, Bob Simmonds, Dalton said he has never received a satisfactory explanation from either of the two lawyers who were involved in his case as to what happened and why he sat in prison day after day fighting to get his life back.

St. John's lawyers David Eaton and David Day represented Dalton at different points between the time of his arrest in 1988 in Gander and 1997, when Jerome Kennedy took over the file.

Dalton, a former bank manager, was convicted in 1989 of the second-degree murder of his wife, Brenda, and sentenced to life in prison with no eligibility for parole for 10 years.

The conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 1998 and a new trial ordered. He was acquitted in June 2000. Inquiry counsel Nick Avis and Simmonds went through much of the correspondence between Dalton, Justice officials and his lawyers Tuesday.

Eaton represented Dalton at his original trial in 1989 and filed the notice of appeal of the murder conviction. But that was it, said Dalton.

The inquiry heard that in July 1990, Eaton wrote the Legal Aid Commission stating that Dalton's financial resources had been depleted as a result of the trial and inquired as to what steps Dalton must take to obtain legal aid for his appeal.

"I paid my way into prison, and had to beg my way out," said Dalton. Documents reveal his defence for the trial cost about $100,000.

Between October 1990 and May 1, 1991 the legal aid appeals board agreed to authorize a legal aid certificate to Eaton for Dalton's appeal with certain conditions.

However, the certificate was not granted. Documents reveal that between May 1991 and February 1992, Dalton wrote Eaton four times regarding the status of his appeal. But for 15 months Dalton heard nothing.

By August 1992 Eaton wrote back.

"It is becoming more and more obvious to me that finding the necessary block of time to prepare the factum for your appeal will be very difficult if not impossible. I therefore think that you will be better served if another lawyer takes the matter over," reads the letter.

In response to Simmonds' questions, Dalton said the only thing that changed between 1989 and 1992 was that he no longer had the resources to fund his appeal. Dalton said he can speculate that the money ran out, and Eaton was too busy to continue, but that would only be his opinion.

By July 1993, Dalton wrote to David Day explaining Eaton had decided not to continue with the appeal and asking him to consider taking on his case.

Through further correspondence, Day and Dalton signed a solicitor/ client retainer agreement in 1994.

Dalton testified that Day's assistant, Sandra Burke, sent him a rough copy of an appeal document that had to be filed in order to get the appeal rolling. Day informed Dalton that the first draft would be forwarded to him in due time.

According to the correspondence, by April 1996, Dalton was once again losing faith and asked Day to send the first draft of the factum to him.

He testified that when he received it he was pretty upset because it was an exact duplicate of the earlier document he received from Burke. He said it was as if someone took her name and the date off and just photocopied it.

However, he persevered and continued writing justice officials in an effort to get his appeal heard.

In 1997, he said, Burke contacted him and told him she couldn't see anything happening with his appeal, and was concerned things weren't being done.

She recommended he contact Kennedy.

At first he said legal aid refused to hand over the certificate to Kennedy but the then chief justice of the Court of Appeal intervened and the certificate was issued.

He testified six weeks after Kennedy took over the matter, a true factum was filed and a few weeks before the appeal was heard he was released on bail. A new trial was ordered in 1998.

Following his testimony, Dalton told reporters while he was in prison he had no idea how long it would take to prepare for an appeal, but he eventually came to realize things weren't getting done.

"When you're trapped a thousand miles away and locked up all the time it's very difficult to find alternate counsel," he said, adding he doesn't know what happened or why it took so long. "That's why we're here, for somebody to try and make some sense of it."

Both Day and Eaton are expected to give testimony today when the inquiry continues.

Lawyer traumatized by Mt. Cashel case

ST. JOHN'S -- A lawyer says he was so traumatized by working on the inquiry into sexual abuse at the Mount Cashel orphanage, he had trouble working on Ronald Dalton's appeal.

David Day told the Lamer inquiry into wrongful convictions in Newfoundland and Labrador on Wednesday that the stress of working as counsel to the Hughes inquiry into the Mount Cashel abuse left him with migraines.

"I cannot imagine I shall ever recover from that experience, completely, in terms of the ability to focus and to function efficiently," Day told the inquiry.

The Mount Cashel case involved more than 450 victims of alleged sexual abuse over a period of nearly 50 years.

Antonio Lamer, a former justice on the Supreme Court, is leading the commission that is looking into the long delay between Dalton's wrongful conviction and his release from prison. He spent more than eight years behind bars while a string of lawyers worked on his appeal.

Day took over the appeal file from Dalton's original trial lawyer, David Eaton, and eventually passed it on to Jerome Kennedy.

Although he admitted to working slowly on the file, Day said his efforts contributed to the eventual success of the appeal.

Dalton was accused and convicted of murdering his wife in 1989.

The verdict was eventually overturned on appeal, and a new trial was ordered in which he was acquitted.

The inquiry, which is also looking into the wrongful convictions of Randy Druken and Gregory Parsons, is limited to examining the delay in Dalton's appeal. He wants Lamer's final report to discuss how and why he was accused in the first place.

Written by CBC News Online staff

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