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Walter Gillespie in his apartment in Saint John, N.B. on Jan. 9.Hina Alam/The Canadian Press

A New Brunswick man who spent more than two decades behind bars for a homicide he didn’t commit has died just months after he was acquitted.

James Lockyer, the founding director of Innocence Canada, a group that fights for the wrongfully convicted, said Walter Gillespie died on Friday, at the age of 80.

“Obviously, it’s extremely sad,” Mr. Lockyer said in an interview on the weekend. “We’re just glad that he managed to clear his name before he died, even though it was only for a few months that he was a free man, so to speak, free of this allegation.”

In January, New Brunswick Court of King’s Bench Chief Justice Tracey DeWare acquitted Mr. Gillespie and Robert Mailman of 1983 murder charges and apologized for the “miscarriage of justice.”

Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Mailman, 76, who is still alive but terminally ill with cancer, were convicted of second-degree murder in 1984 in the killing of a Saint John plumber named George Leeman.

The 55-year-old was beaten to death, doused in gasoline and set on fire – his charred body was found by a jogger near a trail in a vast park overlooking the city. At the time of his death, Mr. Leeman owed several thousand dollars to local pimps and bootleggers.

According to Innocence Canada, Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Mailman “both had strong alibis with multiple witnesses placing them kilometres from the crime scene on the day of the murder.”

The pair were nonetheless sentenced to life in prison, with Mr. Mailman serving 18 years and Mr. Gillespie serving 21. They always maintained their innocence.

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Walter Gillespie, left, and Robert Mailman pose in the south end neighbourhood where the two men grew up in Saint John, N.B. on Aug.18, 2020.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Innocence Canada co-president Ron Dalton, who has known Mr. Gillespie for 35 years, said he was “a man of principle” who “lived life on his own terms and died honourably.” Neither Mr. Dalton nor Mr. Lockyer knew the cause of death.

“He could have walked away from this any time in the last 40 years and didn’t. All he had to do was tell the police something that they wanted to hear,” Mr. Dalton said in an interview. “It wouldn’t be true, but they offered him multiple opportunities to point a finger at Mr. Mailman. And of course, he said: ‘I can’t say I saw something I didn’t, I can’t say I heard something I didn’t.’”

“And he paid dearly for that with 40 years of his life.”

Mr. Dalton said Mr. Gillespie’s main motivation in securing his acquittal “was so that his one and only daughter would know that he was not a murderer.”

Innocence Canada began reviewing the men’s cases in 2018. They relied on articles written by investigative reporter Gary Dimmock, formerly of the Telegraph-Journal, to make an application to Canada’s Justice Minister for a federal criminal conviction review in December, 2019.

Justice Minister Arif Virani ordered a new trial last year, saying evidence had surfaced that called into question “the overall fairness of the process.”

Innocence Canada said systemic issues related to nondisclosure of evidence, pressure on witnesses and recantations were at play in Mr. Gillespie’s and Mr. Mailman’s wrongful convictions.

“It is most regretful that it has taken 40 years for this day to come,” Chief Justice DeWare said when acquitting the men in January.

One month later, Innocence Canada said a “satisfactory” conditional settlement had been reached between the New Brunswick government and the two wrongfully convicted men.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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