Over the past 20 years, the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) have quarterbacked 18 post-conviction exonerations of people convicted of murder here in Canada. As AIDWYC gets set to mark its 20th anniversary, there are appeals before the courts that could cause that successful case count to rise.
On Friday morning, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered that Leighton Hay, a Toronto man found guilty of first-degree murder in 2004, will have a new trial. For 12 years Mr. Hay and AIDWYC have been fighting to clear his name and the Supreme Court of Canada's decision is an important step towards establishing his innocence.
AIDWYC success stories are becoming more familiar to Canadians as more innocent people gain their freedom from Canadian prisons. Stephen Truscott, David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin and Robert Baltovich are household names in Canada and are five of the eighteen prisoners who have been rescued by AIDWYC.
Unfortunately, these cases are not proof that police investigation and crown prosecution techniques are improving overtime. More often or not, at least according to experts like the Innocence Project, "the common themes that run through these cases -- from global problems like poverty and racial issues to criminal justice issues like eyewitness mis-identification, invalid or improper forensic science, overzealous police and prosecutors and inept defense counsel -- cannot be ignored and continue to plague our criminal justice system."
AIDWYC is hosting a day-long educational conference and gala dinner at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Toronto on November 23 to study and discuss the underlying causes of wrongful conviction.
Over the course of the day everything from a discussion of Shaken Baby Syndrome, to a symposium about false confessions and plea bargains, will take place. Many of AIDWYC's clients and their families will be at the conference to share their stories.
Toronto lawyer and retired Toronto Star investigative reporter Harold Levy has written about AIDWYC and the wrongly convicted over the past two decades. He also writes an award-winning blog about exoneration cases involving disgraced Ontario coroner Charles Smith.
In preparation for the November 23 conference Levy has worked with videographer George Socka to interview four people about the plight of the wrongly convicted in Canada and the United States. Over the course of two weeks they interviewed Rob Baltovich, John Artis, Ralph Steinberg and Sean MacDonald.
"When you are accused of a serious crime, I think the general consensus for people who don't know you that well is that you are guilty," Robert Baltovich told Harold Levy. Baltovich was wrongly convicted of second-degree murder in 1992 for the murder of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Bain. He spent eight years in prison and nearly another decade clearing his name. Baltovich was found not guilty in a retrial in 2008.
John Artis was 19 in 1966. Back then there was no AIDWYC, no Innocence Project. Artis was just a high school athlete facing murder charges in New Jersey alongside boxer Ruben Hurricane Carter. "I was scared to death. My fear, and any black person's fear at that point was to be incarcerated for the murder of three white men."
Artis served 14 years. Carter even longer. Both were eventually exonerated. Carter moved to Toronto and eventually worked with AIDWYC. Artis (pictured with Levy) is now in Toronto assisting an ailing Hurricane Carter. Ralph Steinberg and Sean MacDonald, both Toronto lawyers and directors with AIDWYC, see the upcoming conference in Toronto to be of the utmost importance for justice in this country.
"We want to make this (exoneration) part of the public consciousness and we want to coordinate ourselves to go forward and uncover more miscarriages of justice in the future in more efficient ways," MacDonald told Levy.
In the US, more so than in Canada, film stars, authors and musicians have lent their celebrity support to help bring attention to the plight of the Wrongly Convicted. Jason Baldwin, once sentenced to life in prison for the murder of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, had the strong support of Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks in his ongoing bid for freedom from a life sentence in a US jail.
Canadian Film Maker Atom Egoyan has just made Devil's Knot, a film about the West Memphis Three starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth. Both Egoyan and Baldwin will be at the conference, Baldwin as the Keynote Speaker and Egoyan will introduce him.
Also participating, amongst many others will be Toronto lawyer and AIDWYC co-founder James Lockyer, New York lawyers and co-founder's of the Innocence Project Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the founder of Centurion Ministries, James McCloskey, co-host of the Fifth Estate, Linden MacIntyre, and Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
"Back to the Future" is open to the public. www.aidwyc.org.