Defender of the wrongfully convicted

By Miriam King, Bradford Times

Lawyer James Lockyer speaks, at a Rooted in Community evening  in Bradford, on Monday October 23, 2017. Miriam King/Bradford Times/Postmedia Network

Lawyer James Lockyer speaks, at a Rooted in Community evening in Bradford, on Monday October 23, 2017. Miriam King/Bradford Times/Postmedia Network

Careless police work and “tunnel vision,” focusing on a single suspect. Flawed forensics and errors in the pathologist's report. Vulnerable individuals pushed to confess, or to accept a plea bargain, with the threat of a lengthy sentence held over their head.

James Lockyer has made it his mission to revisit the cases of the wrongfully convicted – those who, over their years behind bars, have never wavered in their protestations of innocence.

He uses the very materials collected through the original investigations, but this time, examined through the lens of objective analysis and new science.

Lockyer was guest speaker at the BWG & District Community Foundation's “Rooted in Community” evening, held October 23 at Green Valley Alliance Church in Bradford. In front of a full house, Lockyer described the careful analyses that cleared individuals like former Judge Jacques Delisle,  77, convicted of murdering his wife of 50 years, Nicole Rainville.

Delisle spent 5 years in prison before the expert witnesses, brought in by Lockyer to review the original x-rays, identified evidence that strongly supported a theory of suicide – a theory always maintained by the family of the victim.

“They never doubted that their grandmother had in fact committed suicide, and that their grandfather had nothing to do with it,” Lockyer said.

Delisle spent five years behind bars for a crime that never happened; William Mullins-Johnson spent nearly 11 years in jail, branded a murderer and child molester. 

Mullins-Johnson had been  babysitting his 4 year old niece Valin and her little brother. At bedtime, he tucked the little girl in, and after checking on her once, went to sleep on a couch downstairs. In the morning, the parents discovered Valin dead, in a pool of vomit.

A pathologist claimed the little girl had been sexually molested and strangled; Mullins-Johnson was arrested.

Mullins-Johnson, testifying at his appeal, said he never doubted the pathologist's report. “They're supposed to be the protectors of society. Yeah, I believed she was (murdered), but it wasn't me. When I was convicted, it destroyed me.”

It split apart his family; Mullins-Johnson ended up suspecting his brother of the crime. It shattered his life.

And it turned out  that the pathologist, now-discredited Dr. Charles Smith, was wrong. The report was based on misrepresentation and “flawed” pathological evidence. There was no  sexual assault. There was no murder; Valin died of natural causes.

Two years after Lockyer launched the appeal, William Mullins-Johnson was acquitted, his conviction quashed – but the case remains an example “of the harm the miscarriage of justice can cause not only to the individual, but the families,” Lockyer said.

Others  cleared through the efforts of Lockyer and his Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted include Guy Paul Morin, Stephen Truscott,  David Milgaard and Romeo Phillion – all convicted of murder, all innocent. Most of the cases he takes on are homicides, simply because of the workload, but he has also dealt with sexual assault convictions.

Like that of Anthony Hanemaayer, 19 at the time he was charged with the sexual assault of a 15 year old girl, in 1989. Although he told his lawyer that he was innocent, Hanemaayer was persuaded to accept a plea bargain – agreeing to plead guilty for a sentence of under 2 years, after the mother of the victim identified him as the suspect. He served 16 months in prison,including 8 months pre-trial custody. Convicted killer Paul Bernardo later confessed to the crime.

Lockyer  and his organization are credited with 25 exonerations of the wrongly-convicted. It is, he told the audience, a  “very time-consuming process.” It took “ten years and one week”  to clear Stephen Truscott, wrongfully convicted of rape and murder of a classmate at the age of only 14, and originally sentenced to death. Truscott's death sentence was commuted to life in prison, and he was paroled in 1969.

In 1997, Lockyer began the effort to clear his name, using documents suppressed by the prosecution at the time, and new scientific evidence. The conviction was overturned in 2007. “That's a long case, a long haul, but at the end it was worth every minute of it,” Lockyer said, noting that the struggle is with the system; the government “is fighting you all the way.”

He was asked about accountability, for the wrongful convictions. “In terms of criminal responsibility? Not at all,” Lockyer said, noting that there have been apologies, public inquiries, lawsuits, and the discrediting of some of the prosecutors and pathologists,  like Dr. Smith. But even when review has found that “it's not mistakes, it's misconduct ” - recruiting of untruthful witnesses, cajoling of witnesses to change their testimony, withholding of evidence from the defence - “there's a significant lack of accountability for prosecutors and police.”

As for how many people are currently sitting in jail for crimes they did not commit? “I have no idea,” Lockyer said, suggesting a “very conservative” estimate is 3%.

He supported the creation of a publicly-funded independent tribunal, to look into claims of wrongful conviction. He also supported a suggestion from one of a number of high school students in the audience,  that there should be a statue erected to the 'wrongfully convicted.”

“Put it right outside a courthouse,” Lockyer said.