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James Lockyer, Nation Builder of the Decade for Justice (Jim Ross/Jim Ross)
James Lockyer, Nation Builder of the Decade for Justice (Jim Ross/Jim Ross)

Nation Builder: Justice

James Lockyer Add to ...

James Lockyer

Birthplace: Orpington, Kent, England

Age: 60

Soon after studying law at McGill University, James Lockyer migrated to Canada permanently in 1973. He taught at University of Windsor and gravitated to the Toronto criminal defence bar.

Each time he accompanies an exonerated murder defendant out of a courthouse and into a crush of reporters, James Lockyer lives a sublime moment that most lawyers can only dream of experiencing.

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As Mr. Lockyer stands off to one side, content and vastly relieved, his startled client - so recently reviled as the worst of the worst - struggles to describe what it is like to be welcomed back to the human race.

It is a moment that Mr. Lockyer has lived a dozen times, personifying the success of a movement that constitutes the justice story of our era.

Mr. Lockyer is not the only lawyer to fight for the innocent, but he is indisputably the central face of the movement. Along with his publicity-shy colleague - Joanne McLean - he has played a central role in virtually every case to hit the headlines.

In the past decade, individuals such as Steven Truscott, Romeo Phillion, William Mullins-Johnson and Robert Baltovich have flocked to Mr. Lockyer, secure in the knowledge that he will use every legal, political and communications tool at his disposal to unlock a near-impenetrable system.

Mr. Lockyer also plays a key role in the chain of accountability that typically follows a miscarriage of justice. Wrongful convictions beget judicial inquiries, probes that force changes to every corner of the justice system - and to which Mr. Lockyer has devoted years of his life.

As a direct result of these dynamics, police confessions are now viewed with healthy skepticism and untrustworthy jailhouse informants have been driven from the courtroom. Reports by forensic scientists and pathologists no longer overreach the way they once did, prosecutors take extra care to ensure the integrity of evidence, and judges have learned a newfound sense of humility.

The wrongful-conviction movement has also brought cultural changes. The public and media are no longer so quick to ignore cries of innocence from within prison walls, and the defence bar has acquired a sheen of crusading respectability that it hitherto lacked.

Perhaps most dramatically, the death-penalty debate has disappeared, its coffin nailed shut by the dozen individuals whose innocence would have been established posthumously had capital punishment still been on the books.

With his trademark shock of untamable hair, Mr. Lockyer has proselytized before hundreds of microphones and in scores of church basements. He played a pivotal role in founding the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. He has also honed courtroom skills and knowledge of criminal procedure to a point where he keeps company with the top echelon of the country's lawyers.

To be sure, Mr. Lockyer's efforts have not earned him universal love. There are colleagues who resent his love of centre stage, he can be rough with junior lawyers and he has left many a prosecutor bristling at his demanding nature and self-righteous hectoring.

Yet those who work with him attest to the hundreds of hours that Mr. Lockyer devotes to each case - brainstorming, writing legal factums, studying intricate forensics, and prodding prosecutors and journalists.

In a nation that has become known globally for rooting out miscarriages of justice, Mr. Lockyer's dedication, work ethic and dominant role go unquestioned.

Kirk Makin is The Globe's justice reporter.

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