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Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance, from left, speak to media outside Court of King's Bench in Yorkton, Sask., on March 27.Michael Bell/The Canadian Press

A Saskatchewan judge has ordered the release on bail of Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance, Indigenous sisters who have spent 30 years in custody for a murder they say they didn’t commit.

“I always knew in my heart we’d be free,” said Odelia, outside the Court of King’s Bench in Yorkton, Sask., on Monday.

Their 1994 conviction is currently under review by the federal Minister of Justice for a possible miscarriage of justice. Last summer, the sisters asked the court for conditional release until the federal review is finished. In his decision, Justice Donald Layh had to determine whether their federal application had merit, whether the sisters posed a flight risk and whether their continuing detention is in the public interest.

“I am satisfied that the Quewezance sisters have satisfied on the balance of probability that their application to the minister is not frivolous, that they will return to court as required, and neither the public safety nor competence in the administration of justice is offended by their release,” Justice Layh said in his decision on Monday.

The sisters grew up in Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan and attended residential school, where they faced physical, emotional and sexual abuse. In 1993, police charged Nerissa, then 18, and Odelia, then 21, with second-degree murder for the violent stabbing death of 70-year-old Anthony Joseph Dolff in his farmhouse near Kamsack, Sask.

Their 15-year-old cousin pleaded guilty to the murder a few months later, but prosecutors continued to pursue a murder case against the Quewezances. During their trial, the cousin (whose name is protected under the Young Offenders Act) testified that he’d wrapped a phone cord around Mr. Dolff’s neck, dropped a television on his head and stabbed him to death.

An all-white jury wasn’t convinced that the testimony cleared the sisters and found both guilty of murder. They were sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years.

Since then, advocates for the wrongfully convicted have questioned their continued imprisonment. In a 2020 APTN documentary that brought national attention to the case, the sisters’ cousin confessed once again to the murder and said the women should go free.

In recent years, Innocence Canada has taken up the cause. The group, formerly known as the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, has been responsible for freeing scores of wrongfully convicted Canadians, including Guy Paul Morin, Tammy Marquardt and David Milgaard, a vocal advocate for the sisters’ release until his death last year.

A Saskatchewan judge has granted bail on March 27 to two sisters who have spent nearly 30 years in prison for what they say are wrongful murder convictions. Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance say they are overwhelmed by their release while they await a federal review of their second-degree murder convictions.

The Canadian Press

“This case, more than anything, highlights the way Indigenous women are treated in our justice system,” said James Lockyer, founding director of Innocence Canada and lawyer for the sisters.

Since 2003, both sisters had been granted parole on several occasions, but repeatedly breached their conditions. Justice Layh called their parole records “abysmal.”

However, he said he was confident the significant support network that has built up around sisters in the recent years would ensure a successful release. “For Nerissa or Odelia to fail to surrender into custody would be a betrayal of the immense support they have received from persons who have lobbied in their support to secure a new trial or a referral to the Court of Appeal,” he said.

“I wish you the best on your new journey,” Justice Layh told the sisters after reading his decision.

Nerissa and Odelia, who were both dressed in traditional ribbon skirts, smiled at each other and looked over to family members sitting in the courtroom as they learned of their impending freedom.

Until Monday’s decision, Nerissa, now 48, had been imprisoned at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women in Abbotsford, B.C. Odelia, 51, has been on day parole since last April.

The court placed the sisters under a series of conditions, including keeping a curfew, staying with a surety, attending employment programs, keeping the peace and reporting to a bail officer.

The Crown opposed the motion for conditional release out of public safety concerns. Mr. Lockyer said the sisters never posed a threat to anyone. “When they did mess up on parole in the past, they didn’t get into trouble,” he said. “They became productive citizens.” During one unlawful absence from custody in 2019, Nerissa volunteered with a group assisting the homeless in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and worked with local churches.

The Crown has also refused to provide the sisters with all documents collected by the police and prosecution in the case, which would assist in preparing their federal conviction review application, Mr. Lockyer said.

The Quewezance case is currently under review by the federal Department of Justice Criminal Conviction Review Group, which said last June that there’s “a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred in this matter.”

It is investigating all facets of the case and preparing a report for the Minister of Justice’s consideration. The minister can dismiss their application, order a retrial or refer the matter to an appellate court.

With a report from The Canadian Press