On November 28, 2014, an Ontario Superior Court withdrew a murder charge against Leighton Hay, who had spent the previous 12 years behind bars for a crime that, it turns out, he didn’t commit. According to the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted, in the same week that Hay was released, Glen Assoun was freed in Halifax after serving 17 years for second-degree murder, and Frank Ostrowski was granted a mistrial in Winnipeg on a 1986 conviction for first-degree murder, after languishing in jail for 23 years.
If these cases don’t give readers pause to reconsider the supposed infallibility of our Canadian justice system, those readers could do worse than seek out a copy of Joan McEwan’s Innocence on Trial, which charts the maddening story of Ivan Henry, erroneously convicted in 1983 for a string of Vancouver rapes. Henry’s conviction, like Hay’s, turned on eyewitness testimony that proved questionable at best, and was based in part on a lineup photo that was problematic and possibly even doctored.
McEwan, a Vancouver labour lawyer who is also involved in advocacy for the convicted (both innocent and otherwise), paints a Kafkaesque picture of a bureaucratic justice system fully capable of reaching a decision about an accused’s guilt then manipulating trial proceedings to arrive at a predetermined verdict. She illustrates the way the trial judge appeared biased toward the prosecution and misled the jury in his charge, and highlights prosecutorial deficiencies, including failing to provide semen samples that could have been exculpatory and not disclosing police reports suggesting a second suspect in the rapes.
The first half of the book takes the reader through Henry’s arrest, preliminary hearing, trial, and incarceration. Based largely on court transcripts, this section is structured in the dramatic manner of a legal thriller. McEwen, however, occasionally seems uncomfortable reconstructing the street-level argot of Henry and his fellow prison inmates. (The picture she paints of life behind bars, however, is harrowing.) Dissatisfied with the legal aid representation he was provided at the prelim, Henry insisted on serving as his own (admittedly atrocious) counsel at trial; McEwen often struggles to make sense of his confused and incoherent defence.
The book really finds its feet in the second half, in which McEwen the storyteller takes a back seat to McEwen the legal expert and fiery scold. Here she systematically lays out the ways in which the administration of justice was prejudiced against Henry from the start (his wife, a heroin addict, was paid $1,000 to inform against him). She effectively turns the tables, putting the machinery of jurisprudence on trial, and showing in stark and chilling detail how one innocent man can be railroaded into prison without anyone batting an eye.