THE BLOG

How I Uncovered a Botched Murder Investigation

11/28/2014 05:51 EST | Updated 01/28/2015 05:59 EST
Shutterstock / Nomad_Soul

As a longtime investigative reporter at the Hamilton Spectator, I've seen my fair share of injustices, outrageous behaviour and bafflegab. Rarely, though, have I seen all of that concentrated so heavily in one place as I have in the story we've christened Railroaded, an innovative project that mixed together investigative reporting and narrative storytelling.

I stumbled on the story by accident. An interim ruling by Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner hinted at the story buried beneath a layer of bureaucratic legalese. I realized right away there was a great story waiting to be told -- a decades-old mob hit, the involvement of a Hamilton crime family, a couple of mob enforcers wrongfully convicted, an angry judge who blistered the police and the Crown for deliberately and systemically withholding evidence from two men and a halfhearted investigation of the police by the police.

On top of that, there was one final outrage -- the shocking inability of people to access basic information from their own government and 16 years' worth of stonewalling‎.

Railroaded is a re-examination of the 1983 murder of a Toronto mobster named Domenic Racco and the subsequent wrongful conviction of two Hamilton men. When a judge eventually tossed out the murder charges in 1997, the Ontario Provincial Police stepped in to investigate the abusive conduct of the Crown attorney and two police forces. That investigation led to a 318-page report in 1998, which to this day has still not been made fully public.

In searching for Racco's murderers, six men would be charged over two trials in 1985 and 1991. Dennis Monaghan and Graham Court, convicted of first degree murder in 1991 and sentenced to 25 years in prison, were eventually set free in 1997, their charges stayed.

Justice Stephen Glithero found glaring holes and abusive behaviour by the police and the Crown Attorney. The OPP then launched "Project No Show," a criminal investigation into the police and the Crown, before exonerating all parties with a three-paragraph statement just eight months later.

Secret recordings, missing evidence

Exactly 25 years ago, Hamilton and Halton police were investigating two separate murder cases allegedly involving Dennis Monaghan and Graham Court. With the help of a police informant, a wiretapped car and a bugged donut shop, the police had allegedly recorded Monaghan and Court admitting their involvement in the Racco murder. The two men were charged with the mobster's murder in January 1990.

While a short recording of Monaghan implicating himself was the focal point for the Crown's case against him, a key omission led to a successful appeal in 1995. A key piece of evidence was missing -- a tape on which Monaghan insisted to the informant that he had no involvement in the Racco murder.

The police acknowledged the disappearance of a tape from the November 29, 1989 recordings, but stressed that Monaghan had made no denial when they monitored his conversation with the informant. Repeated requests from Monaghan's lawyer regarding the whereabouts of this tape went unanswered throughout the trial. Little did the public know, this was just one of 17 serious instances of non-disclosure of evidence uncovered by Justice Glithero while dissecting the Hamilton and Halton police investigation.

"Project No Show" and freedom of information legislation

The highly questionable handling of the Domenic Racco murder investigation by veteran police officers and the Crown attorney reinforces the public need for access to information.

In 1998, The Spectator and Ontario's Criminal Lawyers' Association began a long and exasperating fight with the province's Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to gain access to the OPP's 318-page report. The ministry has gone as high as the Supreme Court of Canada in an effort to block the report's full release.

It has long been believed that the OPP's "Project No Show" investigation could shed adequate light on the mishandling of the Monaghan and Court prosecutions. Provincial Freedom of Information legislation has allowed some portions of the OPP report to trickle out over the last few years. It would be an understatement to say that the findings of Project "No Show" suggest the administration of justice has been brought into disrepute.

In September 2014, Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner -- the quasi-judicial agency that governs the information process -- made a stunning ruling in this case. After 16 years of battling the ministry, the IPC announced it was throwing in the towel and walking away from the fight. The IPC issued a final order closing the file, saying that there was no sense in trying to get the ministry to stop ignoring its rulings. Incredibly, the IPC announced that it has no legal remedy it can use to force the ministry to abide by its decisions regarding access. It was a shocking announcement that reveals the utter toothlessness of the laws that oversee the ability of people to access their own government's information.

Luckily, I had obtained a full unredacted copy of the 318-page Project No Show report outside of the Freedom of Information process. That unredacted version of the report allowed us to create Railroaded, and tell the full story about a mobster's murder, two wrongful convictions, an angry judge, a shoddy OPP investigation and the massive holes in our access to information legislation.

The shame brought to light with this story is that we may never know who really killed Domenic Racco in 1983 and we will likely also never know why two men were wrongfully convicted of his murder and railroaded into jail. Worse, we'll never know why no one has ever been held accountable for this travesty of justice.

As my managing editor, Jim Poling, said this week, "Citizens in a contemporary democracy that is fair, transparent and independent should not have to beg government or institutions to access information. It should not take 16 years and a fight at the Supreme Court of Canada to access our information."

With Railroaded, Canadians can rest assured that there's now a precedent for the importance of timely, open disclosure of information to the public.

Railroaded, the 32-page story behind the investigation is available at TheSpec.com, where viewers can access exclusive video interviews with key players, including one of the men who was originally accused of the murder.