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In a race against time to exonerate a dying man, New Brunswick conceded yesterday that 59-year-old Erin Walsh's conviction for a 1975 murder was likely a miscarriage of justice.

In the case - apparently New Brunswick's first wrongful conviction - the province's Court of Appeal could overturn Mr. Walsh's non-capital murder conviction within a month.

If Mr. Walsh is fully exonerated in the shooting of Melvin "Chi Chi" Peters, he will have spent longer in prison than any previous victim of a wrongful conviction. Factoring in a series of parole revocations that added years to his sentence, the father of five spent almost 28 years behind bars.

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson yesterday referred the case to the N.B. Court of Appeal because "there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred."

New Brunswick Chief Justice Ernest Drapeau scheduled a hearing for March 14 to decide whether Mr. Walsh deserves a complete exoneration before he dies of cancer.

In an interview, Mr. Walsh said that the Crown's offer of a stay of proceedings falls short of what it would take to allow him to rest easy.

"Unfortunately, time isn't on my side, and so it looks like it will end in the Court of Appeal," he said. "So, the important thing to me is that, when I lay my head down for that final time, that I lay it down with my conviction overturned. Finally, I will die with the law treating me as an innocent man.

"What has kept me alive is my faith, the support of my family and the hope that the day would come when I would wake up and this nightmare was finally over," he said.

Mr. Walsh's defence team - Phil Campbell, Sean MacDonald, James Lockyer and Gus Camelino - were exultant yesterday, but they emphasized that time is running out.

"When we think that justice is close at last, we are brought back to earth by the realization that Erin will have only a few weeks to enjoy it, after living with injustice for three decades," Mr. Campbell said in an interview. "Now, with Erin dying and the case back before the court, it still feels like we are staggering to the finish line and desperately hoping we get there before he drops."

On Aug. 11, 1975, Mr. Walsh and a travelling companion - George Ferguson - befriended three local roustabouts after pulling into Saint John. A 24-hour drinking binge ended in the shooting death of Mr. Peters.

Key to yesterday's dramatic development were two elements of evidence that were not given to the defence before Mr. Walsh's trial. The first was statements from a group of CNR workers that corroborate Mr. Walsh's account of pleading for their help shortly before he ended up in the car with Mr. Peters and his associates where the shooting took place.

In addition, the defence was unaware that within an hour or two of the killing, police overheard Mr. Peters' friends apparently cooking up a plan to frame Mr. Walsh.

"Dumped in a cell by police trying to figure it all out, the two friends agreed on a story that protected each of them - and put Erin Walsh in prison for most of his life," Mr. Campbell said. "The fact that the police were making notes as the collusion occurred - and the jury heard nothing of it - was inexcusable."

The two Crown witnesses, David Walton and Donald McMillan, testified that Mr. Walsh shot Mr. Peters because he hated black people.

The jury had no trouble rejecting Mr. Walsh's claim that Mr. Peters was accidentally shot during a struggle for possession of a sawn-off shot gun that one of Mr. Peters' associates had aimed at his chin, and that the men stole drugs and money from him.

Mr. MacDonald noted that the jury took less than an hour to convict Mr. Walsh. "With the power of his case today, as we now know it, there is not a jury in this country that would not acquit him in half that time," he said.

Unlike many individuals who are wrongfully convicted, Mr. Walsh was a vagabond scofflaw who sold hard drugs, drank liquor to excess, and got himself in and out of trouble as he drove about North America in an aging Cadillac.

Mr. Walsh was at a terrible disadvantage at his trial. Not only was it easy for the Crown to paint him as a lawless drifter, but shortly before the trial, he took his lawyer and several correctional officers hostage at the local jail. He released them after several hours, but the incident received massive publicity.

"I have never claimed to be an angel," Mr. Walsh said yesterday. "What I have claimed is that I am a wrongfully convicted man. All I am asking is that I get justice."

Mr. Lockyer praised New Brunswick's attorney-general yesterday for "a spirit of co-operation that I hope we will see in future cases in other provinces. All too often, prosecutors deny even the obvious in a case like this," he said in an interview.

However, a civil lawsuit launched last year by Mr. Walsh carried a sharply different tone. It accused police and prosecutors in the case of targeting him in a manner that was "malicious, high-handed, outrageous, reckless, wanton, entirely without care, intentional, deliberate, callous, disgraceful, willful, exploitative, and in disregard of Erin's rights and indifferent to the consequences."

It alleged that prosecutor McCarroll, now a New Brunwick Provincial Court judge, failed to disclose key evidence that would almost certainly have demolished the charge against him and spared him the loss of his freedom and a prison life dominated by psychiatric turmoil and physical abuse.

"Erin has always known that the only beneficiaries of the lawsuit would be his family," Mr. MacDonald said. "He is living out his final days in semi-poverty. The lawsuit has always been primarily a vehicle to secure justice for Erin. My hope is that with respect to compensation that all the parties involved act swiftly and fairly before Erin dies. He deserves that."