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obituary

Randy Druken, shown in 2002 file photo, who was wrongfully convicted in the death of Brenda Young, has died. Sources say the 57-year-old died late on Christmas Day, at a St. John’s residence, with no foul play suspected.Keith Gosse/The Telegram

For Randy Druken, having his wrongful conviction overturned was like winning a lottery.

Mr. Druken received a large settlement after serving almost seven years in a maximum-security prison for a 1993 murder he did not commit. The Newfoundland and Labrador government awarded him $2.1-million in compensation after his hard-fought acquittal in the slaying of his girlfriend, Brenda Marie Young.

However, life did not get easier for Mr. Druken, who died in his sleep at age 57 at home in St. John’s, N.L., on Christmas Day. He wasted most of his windfall, continuing to battle drug addiction, alcoholism and psychological trauma that dated back to childhood sexual abuse suffered at Newfoundland and Labrador’s infamous Mount Cashel Orphanage.

“Even getting exonerated and proven … innocent, he still felt trapped by it all,” said his brother Pat, the oldest of eight siblings. “It was a prison of his own making, I guess. He just couldn’t accept what happened [to Ms. Young.]”

Still, Mr. Druken’s steadfastness about his innocence helped prompt the launch the Lamer Inquiry, a three-year, $7-million provincial probe of three overturned murder convictions in Newfoundland and Labrador. The inquiry led to recommendations designed to improve police investigation and prosecutorial practices and develop new Crown policies intended to eliminate doubts about wrongly convicted people’s innocence.

“He helped to prove that the phenomenon of wrongful convictions is a lot more common than we thought,” said Ron Dalton, co-president of Innocence Canada, a group that advocates for wrongfully convicted inmates and provides further support after they are freed.

Rosellen Sullivan, a St. John’s-based defence lawyer who served as a junior counsel for the Lamer Inquiry, said there were “a lot of mistakes” in Mr. Druken’s case. She suggested that the Lamer Inquiry has helped to improve the practices of police and prosecutors.

“I think it has changed the behaviour of the Crown attorneys and the police and all of the parties of the justice system [in Newfoundland],” she said.

Brian Wentzell, a defence attorney who worked for the law firm that represented Mr. Druken, said the Lamer Inquiry sent a strong message on the conduct of police officers and prosecutors and has had an impact across Canada.

“It exposed what went on – which, I think, is critically important,” said Mr. Wentzell, who called Mr. Druken’s arrest and conviction “a set-up.”

The Lamer Inquiry was headed by former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Antonio Lamer. He examined the wrongful convictions of Mr. Druken, Mr. Dalton and Greg Parsons, which occurred within a five-year span. In a 400-page 2006 report, Mr. Lamer slammed prosecutors for accepting, supporting and prolonging police “tunnel vision” that pervaded from the first of three Royal Newfoundland Constabulary investigations of Mr. Druken.

Mr. Lamer chastised a senior prosecutor for delaying Randy’s acquittal after the second and third police investigations confirmed that there was no credible evidence with which to charge, let alone convict him – whereas there was more than enough to charge his late half-brother Paul, had he still been alive.

Paul’s DNA was found in a cigarette butt that burned into a carpet next to an overturned coffee table in Ms. Young’s living room. He died of a drug overdose in the same week that investigators obtained the DNA results.

“Randy was a good guy,” said Mr. Dalton, who spent time behind bars with him and remained a friend. “He had his addiction issues, but he was dealt a very rough hand in life – and we, as a society, did not treat him well.”

Randall (Randy) John Druken was born May 21, 1965, in Newmarket, Ont. He was the youngest of six children – four boys and two girls – born to Patrick and Shirley (née Reardon) Druken, who were originally from St. John’s. Patrick Druken worked as a mechanic in the home-heating industry and as a machine press operator. He later became a transport-truck driver. Shirley was primarily a homemaker.

The couple separated when Randy was an infant. In 1966, Shirley took him and his siblings back to St. John’s, where he lived most of his life. Shirley later started a relationship with Jack Ring, whom she had known previously, and they had two sons of their own.

All of the siblings became prone to alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and violence, building a bad reputation throughout St. John’s as they frequently ran afoul of the law.

Randy spent his early years in and out of foster care and Mount Cashel, while also living at home at times, as his mother grappled with poverty and mental-health issues. He was one of many boys abused over a span of several decades at Mount Cashel by the Irish Christian Brothers, members of a Roman Catholic lay order.

Prior to his wrongful conviction, he spent time behind bars mainly for petty crimes but also for a stabbing incident. Shortly after completing his stabbing-related term, he began dating Ms. Young, a single mother two years his junior.

On June 12, 1993, Ms. Young’s body was found in the living room of her home by her daughter Cindy, who was then 9.

Mr. Druken was arrested on other charges within two days and charged with murder about two months later. In 1995, he was convicted of second-degree murder with no chance of parole for 14 years.

“It was a tragedy,” Ms. Sullivan said. “It should never have happened.”

The conviction was based largely on bogus testimony from a jailhouse informant, identified only as D.M., who claimed that Mr. Druken had confessed. D.M. recanted years later and was sentenced to five years in prison in connection with his false testimony and other offences.

During the Lamer Inquiry, an RNC officer revealed that Randy’s brother Derek had also served as a police informant (though he was not the jailhouse informant, D.M., who testified at Randy’s first trial). In 2005, their half-brother Jody pleaded guilty to the 1999 shooting death of Derek near a downtown St. John’s drugstore and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

“I’ve buried four brothers – it’s all related to a lifestyle and that lifestyle comes from drug and alcohol abuse and stuff like that,” said Pat Druken, who overcame alcohol and legal troubles at a young age.

Randy once told The Independent newspaper that he began using drugs as a teenager, possibly to gain attention, and became addicted during his wrongful prison term in the 1990s while trying to “escape everything.”

“I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t care how close I got to [death],” Randy said.

Released from prison in 1999, Randy struggled to fit back into the community because of his family name and his past, Mr. Dalton said.

He lived in Mr. Dalton’s basement suite for about 5½ years after being evicted from the bottom suite in an over-under duplex when the owner’s daughter moved in upstairs and recognized him, Mr. Dalton said.

“Randy was definitely thrown to the wolves, even when he got a settlement,” Mr. Dalton said.

Mr. Druken was awarded the compensation about seven years after his release.

Rather than just cutting a cheque, Mr. Dalton said, the province should have helped him deal with his substance abuse issues, provided mental-health counselling and assisted in managing his finances.

“He didn’t know how to manage the money,” Mr. Dalton said. “He was having some addiction issues at the time and having that much money only made [them] worse.”

Mr. Dalton said the province should have given Mr. Druken a smaller lump-sum payment and regular monthly payments similar to those granted elsewhere. Ms. Sullivan called the large payment a recipe for disaster. She said society owed him more than financial compensation.

“We owed it to him to try to help him navigate coming back into the world as a wrongfully convicted person,” she said.

Mr. Druken spent frivolously and was generous to a fault, Mr. Dalton said. But Mr. Druken did not appreciate the compensation because he felt it was tied to several deaths and the Young children’s loss of their mother.

“He almost looked at that settlement as blood money,” Mr. Dalton said. “He couldn’t wait to get rid of it in some ways.”

But despite everything that had happened in his life, Mr. Druken was always cheerful and lit up a room, Mr. Wentzell said, recalling many times when Mr. Druken arrived at his firm’s office with a tray of coffees for employees.

“[His demeanour] certainly wasn’t anything that would line up with anybody who knew what he’d been through,” Mr. Wentzell said.

For a number of years, Mr. Druken was in a common-law relationship with a woman who also had substance abuse issues and tapped into his finances, Mr. Dalton said. Although the relationship ended, Mr. Druken remained involved in the lives of her children and grandchildren.

“He really relished the role of being a poppy – a grandparent,” Mr. Dalton said.

During Mr. Druken’s funeral, his stepdaughter Hayleigh praised him for teaching her, her sister, Brittany, and brother, Jamie, to read and write. (Mr. Druken overcame illiteracy largely on his own while teaching himself to read complex philosophical books in prison.)

Hayleigh praised him for being a counsellor, referee, mentor, shoulder to cry on and, most importantly, a friend to the children.

She said it was always hard for her and her siblings to think of Mr. Druken as their stepdad because he wasn’t – he was their “father.”

Randy Druken leaves his father, Patrick; brother Pat; half-brother Jody; sisters Sharon and Donna; three stepchildren and eight step-grandchildren.

Mr. Dalton called Randy’s death “a tragic end to a tormented life.”

He carried a picture of Ms. Young in his wallet until the day he died.

“He loved the girl dearly,” Pat Druken said.