The Ontario government and three top judges offered an extraordinary round of profuse apologies yesterday to a 37-year-old aboriginal man - William Mullins-Johnson - moments after he was acquitted of the 1993 murder of his four-year-old niece, Valin.
However, it wasn't enough for Mr. Mullins-Johnson who insisted that only a declaration of utter innocence can truly clear his name and allow him to return to his Northern Ontario reserve where many still believe him to be a child killer.
While the Crown resisted Mr. Mullins-Johnson's attempt to win a historical first - a verdict that would go beyond a mere acquittal and establish actual innocence - it conceded that the evidence used to convict him was worthless.
"There can be no doubt that this miscarriage of justice has exacted a terrible toll on Mr. Mullins-Johnson, his mother and his entire family," prosecutor Michal Fairburn said.
"For this, we are truly, profoundly sorry."
The apologies capped an emotionally wrenching day in which Mr. Mullins-Johnson broke down repeatedly as he described the day of Valin's death, and how the tragedy split his extended family and kept him behind bars for 12 years.
"My life got sucked right out of me," Mr. Mullins-Johnson testified haltingly. "I went into hysterics. ... It ruined my name. It ruined my reputation. I thought I was going to a federal penitentiary to die. To be honest, I expected to get my throat cut."
The case began to fall apart five years ago, when international experts contradicted disgraced pathologist Charles Smith's finding that Valin was sexually violated and murdered several hours before her body was discovered on June 27, 1993.
At the time, Mr. Mullins-Johnson was living with his brother, Paul, and his sister-in-law, Kim, in their home on the reserve near Sault Ste. Marie. The previous night, he had babysat their three children, giving Valin an affectionate hug as she settled into her bed for the night.
Weeping, Mr. Mullins-Johnson recounted his sister-in-law's horror when she discovered the next morning that Valin was dead. He described his brother's frantic efforts to roll Valin - her body rigid with rigor mortis - over onto her back so that he could administer CPR.
Within 11 hours, police had arrested Mr. Mullins-Johnson and carted him off for a nightmarish interrogation session. "They kept screaming at me that they had evidence that I did this and that," Mr. Mullins-Johnson recalled. "With every accusation, I responded: 'I didn't do it.' "
His horrified extended family "closed ranks on me," Mr. Mullins-Johnson testified. He said that since he, too, trusted the experts, he came to believe privately that his brother might have killed his daughter.
(The two men are estranged. Speaking to reporters yesterday, Mr. Mullins-Johnson said: "I would tell Paul that nobody hurt your little girl. We have suffered enough. It is a point where we have to heal now.")
In prison, Mr. Mullins-Johnson kept to himself. He sought refuge in learning about aboriginal culture and he waited patiently in the hope that lawyers from the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted would review and tear apart his conviction.
On Sept. 21, 2005 - precisely 11 years after his conviction - Mr. Mullins-Johnson was released on bail to await yesterday's Court of Appeal hearing.
AIDWYC lawyer James Lockyer told the court yesterday that Dr. Smith's shoddy work launched an "extraordinary rush to judgment" by authorities that ignored simple logic and a complete dearth of any physical evidence of a sexual assault.
"There was no stopping the train," he said. "It had left the station."
Urging the court to declare his client "factually" innocent, Mr. Lockyer said that nothing short of such a finding will convince the doubters in Mr. Mullins-Johnson's community. "It shouldn't need a public inquiry to restore his name, if this court believes that Mr. Mullins-Johnson is innocent," Mr. Lockyer said. "This is a request to not leave Mr. Mullins-Johnson in limbo."
But Ms. Fairburn and co-counsel Ken Campbell warned that it would be a grave mistake to create a new verdict that would "debase" any not-guilty finding and relegate it to second-place status.
"We may never know [how Valin died]," Ms. Fairburn said. "But what we do know - and it is critically important to today's case - is that there was no evidence of homicide."
The court reserved its written reasons yesterday. Before adjourning, Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor told Mr. Mullins-Johnson - on behalf of Mr. Justice Marc Rosenberg and Mr. Justice Robert Sharpe - "it is regrettable that as a result of flawed evidence, you were wrongly convicted and you spent a long period in custody."
Reinterpreting the facts
Anatomical evidence that led to William Mullins-Johnson's conviction for the murder of his four-year-old niece, Valin, was a tragic misinterpretation, Ontario's top pathologist testified yesterday.
Michael Pollanen said that two crucial autopsy observations led to the murder charge and conviction - a dilated anus, which was interpreted as a sign of a sexual assault; and bleeding in blood vessels of Valin's neck, which suggested that she had been strangled.
In fact, both were normal biological events that can be expected to take place when a child dies and is found lying face down, said Dr. Pollanen, Ontario's chief forensic pathologist.
He said that a child's anus will often dilate after death, and that blood responds to gravity after death and pools at the lowest point, often creating an appearance of bruising or compression.
Dr. Pollanen said that disgraced pathologist Charles Smith made another suspicious - but mistaken - observation when he conducted an autopsy on Valin's body in 1993: a laceration to her anus. In reality, he said, the laceration was caused when portions of her body were sectioned in preparation for the autopsy.
"The cause of death is unascertainable in this case," Dr. Pollanen said.
Crown counsel Michal Fairburn asked: "Essentially, we have a young girl who died suddenly and inexplicably, and any pathological attempt to explain her death would be mere speculation?"
"In my view ... a pathologist should resist any speculative guesses at the cause of death," Dr. Pollanen agreed.