By Donna Laframboise, Toronto Star, 11 January 1993
In 1991, Britain's Court of Appeal quashed criminal convictions against Annie Maguire, five of her male relatives, and a family friend. Accused of manufacturing bombs for the Irish Republican Army, six of these people had already served sentences of between five and 14 years. One other had died in prison.
The British government now admits the Maguire Seven affair was a massive miscarriage of justice. It admits that, due to the absence of any hard evidence (a search of the Maguire home had turned up no trace of explosives), the guilty verdicts were largely the result of testimony by forensic scientists.
While these scientists claimed that a particular test had indicated the presence of nitroglycerine on the hands of the Maguires when they were arrested, it was later revealed that contact with common objects such as cigarettes or playing cards also produced positive test results.
Furthermore, an inquiry found that these government-employed experts had deliberately suppressed contradictory scientific findings while testifying for the prosecution.
In a similar case, the Birmingham Six were also released in 1991. These men had been convicted of bombing two crowded pubs and each had spent the past 16 years in prison. Once again, faulty forensic evidence involving sloppy scientific practices and an inexperienced analyst, had been a significant factor in their wrongful convictions.
The role played by the British Court of Appeal in the Birmingham Six case, however, was less than admirable. Indeed, the case had to be referred back to the court three times and the chief prosecutor had to publicly admit that the forensic evidence was worthless before the appeal judges were prepared to agree that something had gone terribly wrong.
In retrospect, there's little doubt that the manner in which this case was handled by Lord Lane, Britain's then chief justice, left a blot on his distinguished career. After the Birmingham Six were released, over 100 MPs signed a motion calling for Lane's resignation.
Even people who didn't support this step agreed that he bore a great deal of responsibility for the public's loss of confidence in the legal system. They pointed out that, despite the discovery of numerous wrongful convictions, Lane had seemed more interested in protecting the judiciary from criticism than in assuring the public that the court's first priority was seeing that justice was done.
Significantly, a year after the Birmingham Six were exonerated, Lane opted for an early retirement.
Parallels may be drawn to our own situation. As happened in Britain, the Donald Marshall and David Milgaard cases have shattered our complacency.
We know now that innocent people have been wrongfully imprisoned in this country. We know that police, lawyers, judges, juries - and, if we're willing to learn from the British situation, even forensic scientists - are capable of making profound mistakes.
The question is whether this knowledge has begun to penetrate the consciousness of Ontario's own Court of Appeal.
When Guy-Paul Morin's lawyers begin arguing, at his bail hearing a week from today, that there's ample reason to believe Morin was wrongfully convicted of first degree murder, will the members of this court insist on viewing such arguments as an attack on the judiciary?
Or will they set a brave new course by recognizing that the public outcry over the handling of this case is a signal that justice will only be seen to be done if Morin is granted an appeal?
Additionally, will the judges display a sensitivity to the unusual nature of this case - and to the fact that Guy-Paul Morin has no other criminal record of any sort - and grant him bail in the meantime?
Or will they insist that he waste away in Kingston Penitentiary for an unknown number of years until such an appeal can be heard?
This case offers our judiciary an important opportunity to build confidence in our legal system.