11/25/2014 09:50 EST | Updated 01/25/2015 05:59 EST

Manitoba Appeal Court to review 1987 murder conviction of Frank Ostrowski

WINNIPEG - A former hair stylist turned drug dealer who spent 23 years in prison for murder has moved one step closer to possibly clearing his name.

Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay has referred Frank Ostrowski's case to the Manitoba Court of Appeal for a conviction review.

MacKay said in a written statement Tuesday that he was "satisfied there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred in Mr. Ostrowski’s 1987 conviction."

Ostrowski, 65, said he is anxious for the ordeal to be over.

"It doesn't take long to put somebody in (prison), but it takes them a long time to change things," he said after a brief court appearance in which his bail was continued.

"Now I have the evidence that proves I'm innocent ... and it'll all be settled shortly, I hope."

The move comes five years after a Court of Queen's Bench judge released Ostrowski on bail pending a federal review of his case. The judge cited serious concerns about the conviction.

Ostrowski was found guilty of ordering the shooting death of Robert Nieman over a drug debt. He was convicted largely on the testimony of a key witness — Matthew Lovelace — who had separate charges of cocaine possession stayed.

Ostrowski's lawyers and the jury were never told about that arrangement and Lovelace told the trial he did not receive any favours in exchange for his testimony. Ostrowski has always maintained his innocence.

James Lockyer, senior counsel with the Toronto-based Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, said Tuesday that Lovelace was a key part of the Crown's case.

"It seems to me that the case was Lovelace-dependent, and Lovelace's evidence, as I say, has proven to be a fraud."

No date has been set for the Appeal Court hearing.

Ostrowski is the fourth Manitoba man convicted of murder to have his guilt thrown into doubt.

James Driskell was convicted of killing a friend in Winnipeg in 1990. The verdict was based partly on testimony from a witness who was given tens of thousands of dollars in expense payments as well as immunity on an arson charge. Driskell's conviction was quashed in 2006.

Kyle Unger was convicted of killing a teenage girl at a rock festival in 1990, based partly on hair samples found at the scene. DNA tests years later showed the hairs did not belong to him.

Thomas Sophonow was found guilty of killing a waitress in 1981. That was based largely on the testimony of a witness who contradicted in court what she had told police. The defence was not told about the contradiction at the time, and Sophonow spent four years in prison before he was freed.