injusticebusters logo

Romeo Phillion

Enjoys first Christmas outside prison in 31 years

Romeo Phillion died November 2, 2015 at age 76

Romeo Phillion

Romeo Phillion and family shortly after he was released on bail after 31 years.

MISSISSAUGA - Romeo Phillion is spending Christmas outside of prison for the first time in 31 years, as the federal justice minister continues to investigate whether he was wrongly convicted of murder.

"Most inmates, they stay in their cells just watching their TV, watching Christmas stories, Christmas carols on TV or radio, whatever," Phillion said in an interview from his sister's home in Mississauga, Ont. "That's all they have for Christmas."

“Romeo Phillion could not have killed Leopold Roy”
-- chief investigator

But this year, the 65-year-old has enjoyed decorating a tree, playing with his nephew and looking forward to a big Christmas dinner. The family holiday he's enjoying at his sister's home is his first in three decades.

In 1972, Phillion was convicted of murder in the 1967 stabbing death of Ottawa firefighter Leopold Roy. Phillion confessed to the murder while in jail on a robbery charge.

Calling that confession a "bad joke," he immediately recanted and has maintained ever since that he did not kill Roy.

The Ontario Superior Court released Phillion on bail in July this year, after a group lobbying for the rights of the wrongfully convicted produced evidence suggesting he was stuck at a service station 200 kilometres away when Roy was stabbed.

Phillion says that helping decorate his sister's house is a joy that only someone in his shoes could understand, adding that prison is the worst place to spend Christmas.

"What does it feel like? A lost soul. You think of your family, your kids, wish you were there with them," he says.

If Phillion is found to be innocent after the current government investigation, he would be the longest-serving wrongfully convicted prisoner in Canadian history.

Phillion's sister, Simone Snowden, has been planning this Christmas in her mind for years.

"We'll make him a really good Christmas. And I'll get him to help me set the table with the candles and everything. It will be nice for him. He's never had a Christmas like he's going to have this year, never."

Most of the wrongfully convicted are walking wounded of a dirty, greedy and unfair war on the public -- others are casualties. The war is conducted by those within the system who have a different agenda from the stated claims of the system. For one reason or another, police conduct improper investigations, prosecutors take tainted evidence to court and judges fail to protect the rights of the accused. The reasons do not really matter; the outcome is always malicious. --Sheila Steele


August 9, 1967
Ottawa firefighter Leopold Roy is stabbed to death.

Romeo Phillion is convicted of the murder of Roy. Though he confessed to the murder while in custody on a robbery charge, Phillion immediately recanted and has maintained his innocence ever since.

Phillion appealed the conviction but to no avail. He has refused to apply for parole, saying it would be an admission of guilt.

When he was later asked why he confessed, Phillion would only say it was all a bad joke that cost him his life.

May 15, 2003
Phillion files an application asking Ottawa to set aside his conviction and order a new trial.

A police report not shown to the defence at the original trial confirms Phillion was stuck at a service station in Trenton, Ont. (200 kilometres from Ottawa) when the crime took place, according to Phillion's lawyer and a group of law students from York University's Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. The group, called "The Innocence Project," also says there's evidence that four Crown witnesses all changed their testimony about when they saw Phillion in Ottawa.

June 2003
Ontario Superior Court Justice David Watt says he is satisfied that he has jurisdiction to rule on Phillion's bail application. However, he says he does not have the power to determine whether the 1972 conviction was justified.

July 21, 2003
The Ontario Superior Court releases 64-year-old Romeo Phillion on $50,000 bail while the federal justice minister investigates whether he was wrongfully convicted. Phillion had been in jail for 31 years. He will live at his sister's home in Mississauga, Ont., while his case is being reviewed.

As a condition of his bail, Justice Watt said Phillion should receive support from the John Howard Society, a prisoners' rights group, and St. Leonard's House, which provides assistance for the reintegration of prisoners into society. "It would be unfair in my mind, unthinkable, to turn loose a person who has been in prison for three decades" without some sort of support, he said.

The review of the Romeo Phillion case could take as long as a year, according to Phillion's lawyer, James Lockyer. If Phillion's innocence is proven in court, his jail time would make him the longest-serving wrongfully convicted prisoner in Canadian history, says Lockyer.

August 23, 2006
Federal Justice Minister Vic Toews asks the Ontario Court of Appeal for help in determining whether to order a review of Phillion's conviction. Toews requests a ruling on whether expert reports on Phillion's confession and fresh evidence alleging information was suppressed at trial would be admissible if the case were reviewed in an appeal.

January 2008
The Ontario Court of Appeal reopens Phillion's case, seeking testimony from police and lawyers involved in the case. Retired police superintendent John McCombie tells the court he never mentioned Phillion's alibi during the course of Phillion's trial because he was "never asked." McCombie also says he couldn't remember all of the details of Phillion's case.

The Crown prosecutor in the 1972 murder trial, Malcolm Lindsay, denies that he misled Phillion's defence lawyer or suppressed evidence that would have exonerated Phillion. Phillion's former defence lawyer, Arthur Cogan, says he is "saddened and disturbed" that evidence of his former client's innocence may have been withheld.

Cogan says that Phillion's original confession to the crime, which he later recanted, was a desperate bid to protect his gay lover from other charges.

March 5, 2009
The Ontario Court of Appeal orders a new trial for Phillion as the province's top court strikes down his murder conviction. However, the court says in its 2-1 decision that it can not grant the acquittal Phillion seeks.

After the ruling, Ontario's attorney general moves to withdraw the charge instead of seeking the new trial.

February 1, 2010
Phillion is scheduled to ask an Ottawa court to exonerate him instead of having the charges withdrawn.

Lockyer, his lawyer, will argue the court should order Phillion be arraigned so he can plead not guilty and be acquitted.

April 29, 2010
Crown prosecutors withdraw the murder charge, saying there was no longer any reasonable prospect of conviction.

Outside the Ottawa courtroom, Phillion said the presiding judge, in a statement following the Crown's withdrawal of charges, gave him a good birthday present.

"I got an apology from the judge, which was a gift today. I was not expecting that," he said.

Milgaard wants Phillion set free: Lawyers, students file application seeking bail for convicted man

David Milgaard's eyes blazed in anger yesterday as he demanded freedom for a man who has spent 31 years behind bars for a killing he may not have committed -- Romeo Phillion.

"I want to see him out," David Milgaard -- himself exonerated of murder -- told a press conference in Toronto. "Let's do it right now. Let's do it today!"

Romeo Phillion

"Romeo Phillion needs to be out of prison today," echoed another man exonerated of murder, Rubin (Hurricane) Carter.

"I was on my last legs after 20 years in prison. After 31 years? That's preposterous."

Earlier in the day, lawyers and law students with York University's Innocence Project filed a bail application for Mr. Phillion -- convicted in 1972 in the murder of Ottawa firefighter Leopold Roy.

Lawyer James Lockyer said that should the application fail, Mr. Phillion is doomed to languish behind bars for as long as four years while his clemency plea is considered by the Department of Justice.

"Our argument is that no person should be allowed to be incarcerated when he didn't commit a crime," Mr. Lockyer said. "It has never been made before, but we have great confidence in the argument.

"The Crown's case is in tatters," Mr. Lockyer added.

"Romeo Phillion did not kill Mr. Roy. That means he has served 31 years in jail for something he didn't do. This, as far as we know, is a world record."

“Had Alibi”
-- police report

Mr. Phillion's conviction was thrown into doubt recently by several discrepancies in evidence, including the discovery of a police report confirming his alibi. In addition, two prominent psychologists have concluded that Mr. Phillion falsely confessed in a bid for attention and to cause mischief.

"In his own words, he wanted to start a wild goose chase," Mr. Lockyer said.

"It's a goose chase that is still going on."

Mr. Phillion, 64, recanted his confession within hours of making it in 1971, but it was too late. Ever since, he has consistently sabotaged his chances of parole by insisting on his innocence.

A 450-page brief was delivered to the department yesterday by the Innocence Project, whose law students have devoted thousands of hours to establishing Mr. Phillion's innocence.

Dianne Martin, director of the group, said that the clemency process is absurdly difficult. Documents are frequently lost, censored or suppressed, she told the press conference.

"The hurdles are almost insurmountable," Prof. Martin said.

Under the federal clemency process, a lawyer will be assigned to examine the Romeo Phillion case. The Justice Minister will ultimately decide whether to reject the plea, ask for a judicial review, or grant a new trial.

Mr. Phillion's sister, Simonne Snowden, told the press conference that she has made a bedroom for her brother in her home. "He has a home," she said emotionally. "Hopefully, he will be able to come home."

Man jailed 29 years had alibi, but police buried it

Almost 30 years after an Ottawa drifter was imprisoned for murder, his conviction is in serious jeopardy in light of evidence showing that police investigated and confirmed his alibi in 1968, and then buried their report.

A report by the chief investigator in the Romeo Phillion case stated that he could not have killed firefighter Leopold Roy on Aug. 9, 1967. Mr. Phillion was nonetheless charged with non-capital murder four years later, and convicted in 1972.

Despite Mr. Phillion's prediction to the trial judge that his life sentence "will kill me," he remains in Bath Penitentiary to this day. Correctional records confirm that since becoming eligible for parole in 1982, he has sabotaged his chances by refusing to admit guilt.

"Parole is for the guilty, not for the innocent," Mr. Phillion, 61, said in an interview. "They want you to sit there and feel remorse for something you didn't do. I'm going to fight on. I'm innocent, and they have no choice. I'll take any test they throw at me, because I'm innocent."

It has been a tough stand to maintain. Mr. Phillion has attempted suicide numerous times over the years, once going so far as to swallow razor blades and a line studded with fish-hooks, which he then yanked up his throat. "Every second, I hate it here," he said. "I look outside, I see the fence, and I wonder why I'm here. Just being tagged as a murderer is something I don't wish upon anybody. Every morning, you get up with it. Every night, you go to bed with it."

Mr. Phillion said his bitterness became so unbearable a few years ago that he walked out of the minimum-security institution where he was incarcerated and held up a bank in downtown Kingston. He then returned to the penitentiary with about $2,000 in his pockets, and waited to be caught.

"I got four years for that, and I felt very good. I would be doing time for something I actually did."

Should his conviction prove to be a miscarriage of justice, the sheer length of Mr. Phillion's incarceration will propel him to the top of a list of wrongfully convicted individuals that includes Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin, David Milgaard and Thomas Sophonow. (see right sidebar)

His case is being championed by the Innocence Project, a legal group operating out of York University's law school. The group intends to make the alibi report a centrepiece of its bid to have the Phillion case reopened by the federal Department of Justice.

At the time of the murder, Mr. Phillion was a bisexual drifter with a background of family strife and abusive training schools. His criminal record included living off the avails of prostitution, theft and assault.

Within days of the Roy murder, Mr. Phillion's prostitute-girlfriend, Gail Brazeau, told police that he resembled a composite sketch of the killer. Questioned by police, Mr. Phillion said he had been on his way to New Liskeard via Toronto at the time.

Ottawa Police Detective John McCombie dropped Mr. Phillion as a suspect after the victim's wife was unable to identify him in a lineup and other witnesses said they had not seen Mr. Phillion in Ottawa since a day before the murder.

Mr. Phillion resurfaced as a suspect several months later, when Ms. Brazeau said that Mr. Phillion actually was in Ottawa on the day of the murder. In her earlier account, she had said he was not.

This time, Det. McCombie cleared Mr. Phillion by confirming that he was far from Ottawa at 2:45 p.m., the time Mr. Roy was stabbed to death by a robber in his apartment hallway.

The confirmation seemed unequivocal. A service-station operator near Trenton, Ont., said Mr. Phillion had arrived at his station between 12 p.m and 1 p.m. with his car in tow, having run out of gas on the highway.

The man told Det. McCombie that Mr. Phillion left his car radio in lieu of cash for gas. Det. McCombie kept the radio, which has since gone missing. However, on the basis that Trenton is 237 kilometres away from Ottawa, Det. McCombie concluded it was "impossible" for Mr. Phillion to have done the killing.

"A letter will be sent to the New Liskeard Police Department, informing them of our theories and that we do not believe that Romeo Phillion is responsible for this murder," he wrote in his report.

"It might be noted that Gail Brazeau has had a fight with Phillion and it is believed by the writer that this person, being of a simple mind, is trying to implicate him in something in order to get him put away so that she may operate on her own," Det. McCombie added.

For four years, the high-profile investigation stagnated. Then, in early 1972, Mr. Phillion pulled a shotgun on an Ottawa taxi driver. Unable to find Mr. Phillion, police brought his drag-queen boyfriend, Neil Miller, to a station for questioning.

When Mr. Phillion heard of it, he gave himself up.

Mr. Miller told the police that Mr. Phillion had in the past admitted killing Mr. Roy. Confronted with this information, Mr. Phillion signed a confession. Hours later, he tried to retract it.

In interviews with The Globe and Mail and Zone Libre, a French-language CBC-TV program that is airing a story on the case tomorrow night, Mr. Phillion insisted that the confession was a naive ploy to get Mr. Miller released.

"They said the only way Neil was going to be released was if I signed a statement," Mr. Phillion said. "I ran over and saw him. He was crying: 'Romeo, please, get me out of here.' Neil was very sensitive; a drag queen. Being locked up like that, Stephen, he would die. . . . It wasn't a confession; it was a false statement."

York University law professor Dianne Martin, co-director of the Innocence Project, refers to the scenario as "a classical false-confession pattern." She noted that in a private phone conversation with his mother later that night, which was surreptitiously recorded by police, Mr. Phillion disavowed his confession.

"I said anything so that Neil would collect the reward," he told her. "I will say the whole truth tomorrow, and it should change everything."

(The exchange was later ruled inadmissible at Mr. Phillion's trial.)

"It was all fabrication, perjury, promises and coercing," Mr. Phillion summed up recently. "That's how they built their case. There is no one piece of evidence that points at me; it all points the other way."

Meanwhile, the 1968 alibi report lay deep in police files until a couple of years ago, when a copy somehow got into Mr. Phillion's penitentiary security file, among a sheaf of investigative reports.

A correctional officer discovered the documents and gave them to Mr. Phillion. Unlike a heavily edited copy of the report Mr. Phillion had obtained a couple of years previously under Freedom of Information, this copy was uncensored and readable.

Stunned by what he saw, Mr. Phillion sent it to the the Innocence Project. "It is appalling to have to rely on serendipity to clear someone's name," remarked Anna Martin, a student who has worked hundreds of hours on the case.

The group's brief, prepared by co-director Paul Burstein, also points squarely at the loss of important evidence before Mr. Phillion's trial. Among the lost evidence were Det. McCombie's police notebooks and all the physical evidence in the case, including a knife that may have been the murder weapon.

"There was also tissue and some hair found under the fingernails of the dead fireman," said Prof. Martin. "If those could be found now, Phillion could be cleared."

Now retired, Mr. McCombie said in an interview Tuesday that he has no idea how the physical evidence came to disappear, nor does he recall his notebooks being lost.

Mr. McCombie also denied actually clearing Mr. Phillion in his 1968 report, saying he probably learned new information in 1971 that cast doubt on Mr. Phillion's alibi.

"I haven't seen the goddamn report in 35 years," Mr. McCombie said. "I have trouble just remembering what I had for dinner last night. I'd love to read the report and know the context."

Mr. McCombie recalled that he was strongly persuaded of Mr. Phillion's guilt after he saw what he believed to be blood on the suspect's shoes a few days after the killing.

"That evidence never came out, because the shoes were lost somewhere between me confiscating them and them getting sent to the RCMP lab," he said.

Mr. McCombie also said he was struck by the horrified reaction of the victim's wife, Mildred Roy, when she saw Mr. Phillion in a police lineup through a plexiglas window a week after the murder.

He conceded that Mrs. Roy was uncertain about her initial identification after she entered the room to examine Mr. Phillion face to face, but said he put that down to fright.

"When she got into the room, she got scared," Mr. McCombie said. "If you had seen her, you would know why I feel the way I do. . . . Thirty or 35 years later, you can make a great case because nobody is around and all the witnesses are dead, but don't leave any doubt that he was the one."

Defence lawyer Arthur Cogan, who represented Mr. Phillion at his trial, was angry upon learning that he had been deprived of the police alibi report. "I fought my heart out for this guy," Mr. Cogan said in an interview this week.

"Anything favourable to him that the police had in their possession should obviously have been disclosed. The new evidence obviously casts real doubt as to whether he did it. No one can doubt that for a minute."

Notwithstanding the fact that disclosure obligations on the Crown and defence were far less stringent 30 years ago than they are now, the alibi report was of such critical importance that it ought to have been handed over, he said.

Mr. Cogan recalled the case as being a "nip-and-tuck affair," in which he had an uphill fight to overcome his client's ne'er-do-well existence and his murder confession.

In its brief to the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project raises several other important points:

Mr. Phillion has passed two polygraph tests, one in 1971 and one a couple of years ago.

Upon being taken to the scene of the murder just hours after he confessed, he made several startling errors, including misidentifying the apartment he had supposedly robbed. Mr. Phillion also identified a bridge off which he claimed to have thrown his bloodied clothes, only to change his mind and suggest another bridge after realizing that the first one was inaccessible by car.

"He was clearly improvising as he went along," Mr. Burstein said in the brief.

Mrs. Roy repeatedly changed her description of the killer, of whom she caught three brief glimpses on the day of the murder.

In a recent analysis of her evidence on behalf of the Innocence Project, University of Guelph psychologist A. Daniel Yarmey rated Mrs. Roy as an unreliable observer whose evidence must be treated "with the utmost caution."

He said a series of police lineups were faulty and encouraged Mrs. Roy to engage in guesswork. "Furthermore, the fact that Mrs. Roy made three known false identifications of men seen in different hotels is informative of high uncertainty and guessing about the identity of the suspect," Dr. Yarmey said.

Highly unreliable witnesses, several of whom changed their accounts over the years.

Mr. Phillion's trial lasted several weeks in late 1972. Mr. Phillion said he badly wanted to testify, but Mr. Cogan was dead set against it because it would allow the Crown to examine his criminal record.