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Robert Mailman, 72, walks through the Saint John cemetery where his two sons are buried. They were children when their father went to prison for a murder he says he didn't commit.

Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Robert Mailman grows quiet as the car pulls into St. Joseph’s Cemetery, then asks for a moment alone. He shuffles between the narrow rows of graves with the practised gait of a man used to walking in confined spaces.

Mr. Mailman, 72, usually only visits this cemetery in Saint John’s working-class east side when it’s raining or snowing or after dark. He doesn’t want to run into someone he knows. On those clear days, when the sun breaks through the fog, he stays away – sitting on his apartment balcony and watching the graveyard with binoculars. When you’re a convicted murderer in a town where people don’t forget, you have to take precautions.

The first time he came here, in the summer of 1993, his 22-year-old son Jeffrey had already been dead for two years, killed while playing with a loaded handgun. Mr. Mailman was escorted by two guards from the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B., his legs shackled and his hands, clutching a bouquet, chained to a body belt. When he arrived at his son’s tombstone, someone had taped over his name.

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“That hurt,” Mr. Mailman says.

Now he’s a “free” man, free to visit the graves of Jeffrey and his younger son, Bruce, who lie side by side. They were just boys the night Mr. Mailman left his apartment in January,1984, to speak with police. He never returned home. When he was released on day parole in 2000, Jeffrey had been dead for nine years. He wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. Bruce, who spent years advocating for his father’s release, died of an overdose while in police custody in 2004 at the age of 28, leaving behind three children.

Walter Gillespie, left, and Robert Mailman stand in Saint John's South End neighbourhood.

Mr. Mailman and Walter Gillespie, 76, spent 17 years in prison for a murder they have always insisted they didn’t commit. While his friend visits his sons in the cemetery, Mr. Gillespie stands slouched by the car. He’s used to waiting. Prison teaches you that.

Both were in their 30s and had young children when they were convicted in the gruesome killing of a local plumber in 1983. They say their lives, and their families, were ruined by their convictions. Even as old men, the anger hasn’t faded with the years. “My sons had to visit me in prison because of lies, and now because of lies, I have to visit them in a cemetery,” Mr. Mailman says, his voice trembling.

Decades later, both men are hopeful they can finally clear their names. The federal Ministry of Justice is re-examining their case after Innocence Canada, a group that fights for the wrongfully convicted, made a formal application for a review. That application was based on allegations of police misconduct, flawed prosecution, judicial bias and false testimony from witnesses in the investigation and trial that ultimately put the pair away more than 36 years ago.

Police accountability should not have an expiry date, says Innocence Canada, which is also pushing for an independent review to examine how detectives in the Toronto region failed to investigate Calvin Hooper in the 1984 killing of Christine Jessop. Guy Paul Morin was sentenced to life in prison for that crime, until he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1995.

Mr. Mailman and Mr. Gillespie hope recently uncovered evidence will be enough to get them a new trial and one last chance to rebuild their lives. They say it won’t make up for the time they’ve missed – births and deaths, graduations and weddings, and all the relationships that have been lost – but it might allow them to salvage their final years. “We don’t want to die as guilty men,” says Mr. Mailman. “I owe it to my children, and my grandchildren, to prove to them that I did not do this.”

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Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Mailman grew up in the hardscrabble neighbourhoods of Saint John, shown at top this past August. In the city's North End lies Rockwood Park, where discarded beer cans and liquor bottles are seen near the site where, in 1983, a jogger found the charred body of plumber George Leeman.

George Leeman was a plumber who bounced from job to job, and often drank his money away in the dingy, windowless taverns and rooming houses of Saint John. His life ended violently on Nov. 28, 1983, when the 55-year-old was beaten to death, doused in gasoline and set on fire.

At the time, Mr. Leeman owed several thousand dollars to local pimps and bootleggers, who in the early 1980s had plenty of customers in this blue-collar port city. He had three failed marriages, had been kicked out of the Marines, and liked to claim he was once a prize fighter for a New Jersey crime family. A jogger found his charred body near a trail in Rockwood Park, a vast, wooded green space on a ridge overlooking the city.

It was a grisly end for a man whose life was spiralling downward. “We loved him. But none of us were surprised his life ended the way it did,” says his great-nephew, Michael Sherrard, from Calais, Me. “He certainly had his demons.”

For seven weeks, Saint John Police made no arrests, and they had just one person of interest in the case: Janet Shatford, whose house key was found on the victim’s body. She was initially charged with second-degree murder, but had that reduced to manslaughter after striking a deal with prosecutors.

In exchange, she agreed to testify against Mr. Mailman, a local drug dealer and bootlegger who was well known to police. Ms. Shatford, a sturdily built woman who ran a local ring of prostitutes, told police she watched him kill Mr. Leeman with the butt of a shotgun and an axe behind a North End housing project in the middle of the afternoon. Mr. Gillespie, she claimed, stood nearby with a margarine container of gasoline intended to douse the victim.

Mr. Mailman argues that in an effort to get him off the streets, investigators pushed that story on Ms. Shatford. “I was a marked man,” he says. “If they want you hard enough, they can make anything make sense.”

Two years before Mr. Leeman’s death, Mr. Mailman was tried for murder three times in the shooting death of an associate named Stan Whittaker. Mr. Mailman, who found the body but didn’t call police, maintains his innocence in that case, too. Prosecutors could never convince a jury otherwise.

In 1977, Mr. Mailman also beat an attempted murder charge against a Saint John Police officer, after he drunkenly fought back when police burst into a friend’s home responding to a compliant about a shotgun. Though no shots were fired, Mr. Mailman says the city’s cops had it out for him after that. He alleges he was beaten so badly while in custody that he couldn’t walk for weeks.

By the time of Mr. Leeman’s killing, Mr. Mailman had served time in prison for theft and assault, and had a reputation for selling black-market booze, speed, marijuana and hash. In Saint John’s toughest, poorest neighbourhoods – from the old South End, where even the dogs fight in the streets, to the government housing projects in the North End – he was known as a guy who could handle himself when things got rough.

Both lawyers who represented Mr. Mailman in the 1984 murder trial have since died. But Gary Miller, a prominent Fredericton lawyer who briefly took on his case during a previous review in the 1990s, says he was pleased to hear the conviction is getting another look. He says he remains deeply skeptical of Ms. Shatford’s account of the killing.

“Her story was absolutely un-credible – that Mr. Mailman would commit a murder under those circumstances and in that fashion,” he says over the phone from Kingsclear, N.B. “The fact the two wouldn’t admit guilt for so long, when they could have gotten out much earlier – in my mind, that weighed heavily toward their innocence.”

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Mr. Mailman makes no excuses for his difficult life. Born poor in a broken family, he says he fell into street gangs as a young man, left home at 14, drank heavily and did whatever he needed to survive in a city hit hard by the recession of the early 1980s.

Mr. Gillespie, raised by a violent, hard-drinking shipyard worker, knew Saint John’s underbelly, too. His father died when he was 17, and he became a day labourer on the docks and a boozer by night.

By the time he was an adult, he’d turned to crime to pay for his drinking habit and was forging bad cheques all over town. Mr. Gillespie was in prison at age 20 when his mother, brother and four sisters were killed in an apartment fire, crowded together in a rundown tenement with no fire escapes.

The pair were not saints. But they insist they’re not murderers, either.

Mr. Mailman stands beside the apartment building where he used to live before his arrest.

In prison, Mr. Mailman never stopped fighting. He spent months in solitary confinement and orchestrated work stoppages among inmates – some that lasted weeks. The other prisoners respected him and saw him as a leader. He became such a nuisance that Corrections Canada transferred him to Ontario just to get him out of the Atlantic Institution.

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He was seething with anger at being confined. He’d get drunk on prison-made alcohol, cause “smash-ups” and disrespect the guards whenever he had the chance. The death of his first son, in 1991, made him re-examine his behaviour, he says. He found religion and tried to change his ways. “The more I acted up, I realized I was playing right into their hands. I was becoming the person they already said I was,” he says. “If you want to know what it’s like in prison, go home and stay in your bedroom for 22 years. It’s like that.”

Mr. Gillespie approached his sentence more quietly and was considered a model prisoner. He didn’t rage against the system like his friend did. The only infraction he recorded during his time was for stealing an onion from the prison kitchen. His only focus was getting out.

“We talked about it every day, day and night. We’d try to figure out who did it, what was happening, and how we’d push this forward,” says Mr. Gillespie. “But we had no money, and we had no help.”

When they were both housed in Renous, they’d meet in the exercise yard to discuss their case, calling lawyers and writing letters to anyone who would listen. They spent hours in the prison library, trying to educate themselves on the legal system, and ran poker games among inmates to pay for their legal fight.

“We made a lot of collect calls,” Mr. Mailman recalls.

They took and passed polygraph tests, hired a private investigator and tried to build their case from the inside. They were repeatedly denied early release and access to many prison programs because they refused to admit guilt for Mr. Leeman’s murder.

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With all legal appeals exhausted, including denials by the Court of Appeal of New Brunswick and the Supreme Court of Canada, they began to lose hope – until a federal review was started in 1998. Innocence Canada, known then as the Association in Defense of the Wrongfully Convicted, had taken on their case thanks in large part to persistent reporting by Gary Dimmock, an Ottawa Citizen journalist then working for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, and Bruce Mailman’s letter-writing campaign.

That first federal review of their conviction ended prematurely, after a confidential internal investigation brief was leaked to the press before it could reach the minister of justice. As part of the review, investigators from the Saint John Police signed sworn affidavits standing by their investigation. But Innocence Canada says the force was largely unco-operative when it came to requests to view files related to the case.

The prosecutors, Stephen Wood and James McAvity, told the federal review they disclosed all the evidence they had – something defence lawyer WiIber MacLeod insisted was not true and said would have affected the outcome of the trial.

It wasn’t until November, 2019, that new evidence denied to Mr. MacLeod prompted Innocence Canada to once again push for a federal review. The organization sent a lawyer to Saint John Police headquarters, where they were finally given access to files that had been kept hidden for years. What they found startled them, and the group filed an application for a new review, which has now advanced to the investigation stage. Innocence Canada argues the police investigation and witness testimony given at trial remain deeply flawed.

“Whether judged by 1984 standards, or today’s standards, the only conclusion which can be reached is that this conviction is very troubling. Even allowing concessions for the fact that the investigation and trial occurred in 1983-84, the conduct of the entire case is abhorrent to the Canadian sense of fairness and justice,” reads the review application the group filed to Justice Minister David Lametti.

The key Crown witnesses in the men’s second-degree murder trial both said they lied under oath in the 1984 trial. Ms. Shatford, who has a long criminal record, became an important person for police after they found her house key on the victim’s body. Innocence Canada alleges Ms. Shatford was put under enormous pressure by police to say she saw Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Mailman kill the victim, and told a private investigator hired by the group that she lied in an attempt to keep herself out of jail.

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“The cops fed her the information and pretty much brainwashed her. She stated that they kept telling her over and over what to say. She maintained that the police told her everything she said about Mr. Mailman and Mr. Gillespie,” reads a report by Steve Jones, a private investigator hired by Innocence Canada who interviewed Ms. Shatford in 2003.

The most damaging testimony in their trial came from a skinny 16-year-old from the North End projects named John Loeman Jr., who also later recanted, saying he was pressured by investigators into making up a story about witnessing the crime behind a North End housing project. Innocence Canada says police paid him for his testimony, putting their young witness up in a hotel and giving him spending money – and kept receipts. After Mr. Mailman and Mr. Gillespie were sentenced, Mr. Loeman swore an affidavit admitting he had lied in his trial testimony, then recanted that statement, too.

Mr. Loeman also wrote a letter to the Saint John Police and Mr. Mailman, recanting the story he gave on the stand. But the New Brunswick Court of Appeal decided against hearing the boy’s sworn statement as new evidence, arguing he wasn’t credible – even though he was the same witness whose testimony had helped put the pair away.

Mr. Loeman, a troubled youth who was one of sex offender Karl Toft’s many victims, developed into a career criminal with dozens of convictions. He’s currently serving a prison sentence in British Columbia and did not respond to interview requests for this story.

The group raises other concerns, including the qualifications of the investigating pathologist (who had only taken a four-day course in forensic pathology), alleged mistakes in the autopsy, serious flaws in the timeline and alleged bias by the judge, who had presided over the jury trial that acquitted Mr. Mailman of attempted murder two years earlier.

There was no physical evidence linking the pair to the murder, which predated DNA technology. Mr. Gillespie’s car, a Buick Skylark that police alleged was used to transport Mr. Leeman’s body to the park, didn’t have any blood or hair from the victim.

Innocence Canada raises questions about another vehicle at the alleged scene of the crime, a brown station wagon belonging to Ms. Shatford’s brother that disappeared the day after the murder and was dumped off a cliff into the ocean on the outskirts of the city. That vehicle contained an axe and a gas can. Detectives also found the brother’s phone number inside a wallet in the apartment of Mr. Leeman, who owed money to Ms. Shatford, according to her own admission at trial.

Saint John Police, the same force criticized for their handling of the 2011 Dennis Oland murder investigation, long ago destroyed key exhibits from the case while Mr. Mailman and Mr. Gillespie were still working to overturn their convictions. That includes clapboards removed from the supposed scene of the crime that they say could have been tested to discredit the Crown’s theory about where the murder took place.

The police force also reported that a receipt from a car repair shop that would have given the pair an alibi was destroyed. That invoice, for replacing a cheap windshield-wiper motor – which put them elsewhere at the time of the murder – had not, in fact, been destroyed. Instead, it was found by an Innocence Canada lawyer in archived police records last fall.

Innocence Canada argues that to get Mr. Mailman, police also needed to put Mr. Gillespie at the scene of the crime. The pair have always said they’d been at Mr. Gillespie’s house, working on his Buick, at the time of the murder. They allege police coached both witnesses into fabricating a story that conveniently put both of them at the site of Mr. Leeman’s murder.

“We just want the truth to finally come out,” Mr. Mailman says.

The Saint John Police Force declined to comment for this story. But the former police chief, Clarence (Butch) Cogswell, has consistently defended the actions of investigators in the case and has said he’s convinced Mr. Mailman and Mr. Gillespie are the killers. The former chief was in charge in 2001 when Innocence Canada was previously denied access to police files relating to the murder.

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Ms. Shatford’s lawyer, David Lutz, is also convinced the right people went to jail. His former client did not respond to interview requests for this story. He has also represented Mr. Loeman multiple times and says the pair recanted their stories because they were scared of Mr. Mailman and his associates.

“It’s amazing how many times witnesses recant, and it’s amazing how many times those recantations aren’t true,” Mr. Lutz said during an interview at his office in Hampton, N.B. “They were not willing witnesses whatsoever. Bobby Mailman was the most dangerous man in Saint John. And they were afraid.”

For the veteran criminal lawyer, the case is clear-cut: Mr. Leeman owed thousands of dollars to Mr. Mailman, one of the most feared bootleggers in town, and was made to pay for it. Ms. Shatford, he says, just happened to be an unfortunate witness. And he’s skeptical their push to clear their names is motivated by anything other than a potential wrongful conviction settlement.

“It’s about money. That’s all this is about,” he says. “I don’t have any doubt about it all.”

Members of Mr. Leeman’s own family, however, have expressed doubts about the testimony that sent Mr. Mailman and Mr. Gillespie to prison.

The victim’s stepson, Bruce McGee, told a reporter in 1998 that he questioned the account given in court by the main witness, Mr. Loeman, who was also a friend.

“He bragged that it was all written up for him by the police. It was like a script,” Mr. McGee said at the time. “I’m almost certain he didn’t see a thing."

At least one former Saint John Police investigator, an inspector named Alfred Martin, was also skeptical of the pair’s guilt. Mr. Martin, who died in 2010, told Mr. Dimmock – the former reporter for the Telegraph-Journal who wrote extensively about flaws in the case – in 1998 that he had serious concerns about the way police handled the two main witnesses.

They seemed coached, and their stories appeared rehearsed, the former detective said. He was concerned his fellow officers had tunnel vision as they zeroed in on Mr. Mailman. Others who have studied the case agree.

“They wanted Bobby because of those previous charges,” says Ron Dalton, the co-president of Innocence Canada, who spent 10 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Mr. Gillespie was caught up in it because he refused to testify against his friend. Unwilling to co-operate, he became collateral damage in the police pursuit of Mr. Mailman and was charged as an accomplice. “They said, ‘If you want to protect him, you’re going down with him,’ ” says Mr. Gillespie.

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Mr. Mailman walks through the cemetery where his sons are buried. "My sons had to visit me in prison because of lies, and now because of lies, I have to visit them in a cemetery," he says.

Innocence Canada lawyer Jerome Kennedy, who spearheaded the new case audit, says he was drawn to the men’s story because of their steadfast denial of any guilt. It would have been easier for them to say they did it and get out of jail sooner, or at least access programming only available to those who confess to crimes.

“This one has always stuck with me. Maintaining your innocence for that long really takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of effort, and it can often have a negative impact on you in jail, including chances of early parole,” says Mr. Kennedy, a member of Innocence Canada’s executive committee and a former justice minister for Newfoundland and Labrador. “The fact that we had two men who maintained their innocence for that many years is a factor that, from a personal perspective, speaks to me.”

Innocence Canada hired a forensic pathologist to review the case and sent law students to Saint John to comb through old evidence. Among the new evidence they discovered were police receipts for cash paid to Mr. Loeman, the teenaged witness who later said he made the whole thing up.

The group filed an application under section 696.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada, asking the federal Justice Minister to review their convictions to determine whether there may have been a miscarriage of justice. They’re optimistic the minister can be convinced there was and will order a new trial.

Federal reviews of criminal cases are being increasingly used by people who believe they’ve been the victim of a wrongful conviction. The review group – formed after the David Milgaard wrongful conviction case, and composed of investigators and lawyers who advise the Justice Minister – can order a new trial or refer the case to a court of appeal. At last count, the review group had 51 active files. “It’s the last-ditch effort,” says Mr. Kennedy. “It’s essentially your last shot.”

The federal Ministry of Justice declined to talk about Mr. Mailman and Mr. Gillespie’s case, saying it didn’t want to compromise the integrity of cases under review.

Innocence Canada argues their story is a troubling example of police and prosecutor tunnel vision, where the ends justified the means – including ignoring the suspects’ inconvenient alibi.

“One way or another, this is it for us. We won’t have any more chances,” says Mr. Gillespie.

As convicted murderers, the pair say it’s been hard to get jobs and re-establish ties with their families. A life sentence means they continue to be controlled by strict parole conditions. For the pair to meet to do an interview, they needed special permission from their parole officer. They need approval to leave town. Even having a beer is a breach of their conditions.

Long after their sentences have been served, Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Mailman say they’re still doing time.

“Every decision I make, I have to be careful. We’re still in prison, in a way,” Mr. Mailman says. “But I will never admit to this murder. I did not do this.”

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