On an unauthorized furlough from Frontenac minimum-security prison in 1990, Roméo Phillion, who had already served 18 years of a life sentence for a murder he did not commit, headed into downtown Kingston, walked into a bank and informed a teller he had a gun and wanted cash. Upon exiting with about $2,000, he caught a cab back to prison, where he was immediately arrested and sentenced to four years, to be served concurrently with the life term.
"It's nice to be doing time for something I'm actually guilty of," he told the sentencing judge.
The story captures Mr. Phillion's bitterness and frustration during his 31 1/2 years behind bars for the 1967 murder of Ottawa firefighter Leo Roy. It also illustrates the sometimes misguided spirit that kept him going until his sudden death on Monday in a Mississauga hospital from complications related to emphysema. He was 76.
A victim of long-buried police evidence and society's tendency to stereotype the poor and voiceless, in the end, Mr. Phillion found his voice – cranky, impassioned and funny.
There he was, on daises in a wheelchair, toting an oxygen tank as he addressed crowds in brief sentences punctuated with coughing fits as he caught his breath, a diminutive warrior in the battle for other voiceless prisoners who, like him, were wrongfully imprisoned.
And the lawyers and staff at the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), who engineered his unprecedented release on bail in the summer of 2003 as he waited for a ministerial review of the conviction, became his extended family.
"He was never able to weigh pros and cons of his actions," said Win Wahrer, AIDWYC's director of client services. "It was very easy to go after Roméo Phillion. Everything about his case – his story – makes me ill."
Roméo Phillion and his twin, Donald, were born on April 29, 1939, in Cobalt, Ont., the fourth and fifth of Yvonne and Wilfred Phillion's nine children. His mother was a homemaker and his father, who was a presser in a dry-cleaning business, had a drinking problem and a mean streak.
Mostly, the children fended for themselves and the twins, especially, were mischievous and unruly, as young, unsupervised boys could be. But one day, when they were eight years old and their mother was in hospital again to give birth, their older siblings woke up to find they had disappeared.
"It turned out our father sent them away to St. Joseph's Training School, in Alfred, [Ont.]," said Simonne Snowdon, one of Mr. Phillion's four surviving sisters. "They had been throwing snowballs at cars – stuff like that. I didn't see them again for eight years."
Located east of Ottawa, St. Joe's, as it was known, would prove Mr. Phillion's ultimate undoing. Ostensibly a residential school for orphans, truants, referrals from the local Children's Aid Society and children from poor homes that could support them no longer, it was run by the lay order of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, under the supervision of the provincial government. According to testimony in a successful class-action lawsuit by former residents in the early 1990s, it was also hell, replete with beatings and sexual abuse.
"In the late 1990s, my brother [Roméo] got $50,000 as a payout for his suffering," Ms. Snowdon said. "He suffered all his life."
And so Mr. Phillion was set on his way in the world, with no real home and no support, lost and living by instinct, a habitual liar and con artist who talked a blue streak and had no sense of right and wrong – someone his AIDWYC lawyer, James Lockyer, called "a rounder."
When Mr. Roy was killed in the hallway of his Ottawa apartment building in 1967, Mr. Phillion, with a criminal record that included living off the avails of prostitution, robbery and assault, was initially a suspect. But the case's chief investigating officer determined that on the afternoon in question, he had been 237 kilometres away, at a service station in Trenton, Ont., with a car that had run out of gas on the highway.
That was the end of it until 1971, when police in New Liskeard, Ont., less than 20 kilometres north of Cobalt, where he was born, were looking for him after he allegedly pulled a shotgun on a cabdriver. To that end, they pulled in his lover at the time, Neil Miller, who reportedly told them Mr. Phillion had confessed to the murder four years earlier.
Perhaps out of fear for Mr. Miller, or wanting to impress him, Mr. Phillion confirmed what his lover had said, a grand, foolish gesture that he recanted as soon as he was being led away to a cell and would regret for the rest of his life.
Although he recalled the service station, his memory was muddied by time and hard living and he thought he had been there one day later than he actually was. His defence lawyer was never informed of the alibi, period.
Eligible for parole from 1982 on, Mr. Phillion gave up applying for it because it required an admission of guilt.
"They want you to sit there and feel remorse for something you didn't do," he told The Globe and Mail's Kirk Makin in a 2001 interview. "I'm going to fight on. I'm innocent, and they have no choice. I'll take any test they throw at me, because I'm innocent."
But no tests were "thrown." Instead, he became a pasty-faced fixture in the prison system, getting up every morning as a convicted murderer and going to bed at night as one. There were multiple suicide attempts, including one when he lowered a line pierced with fishhooks down his throat and then, scared, yanked them up again.
In the meantime, the alibi report lay buried in police records until the late 1990s, when a correctional officer discovered a copy of it among other investigative reports in Mr. Phillion's prison security file. Unlike a heavily censored file that the prisoner himself had earlier received through a Freedom of Information request, this one was clear and readable. Shocked, he passed it on to the Innocence Project at Osgoode Hall Law School, which started its own investigation.
During the 2003 bail hearing, Mr. Lockyer called his client to the stand for one reason only: "I called him as a witness … on his bail application for one purpose: to testify that the first thing he wanted to do when he got out was to see the CN Tower," said AIDWYC lawyer James Lockyer.
"He wanted to see if something so tall could stand straight. He was on the stand for only three or four minutes. It was a way of showing just how long he'd been in prison."
A week later, when he walked out of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice building, in Toronto, newspaper photos showed him standing outside and staring at the CN Tower with wonder in his eyes.
After AIDWYC lawyers got him released on bail, Mr. Phillion had to wait another six years before the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the original jury verdict and sent the case back for trial (rather than acquitting him outright). When the Crown withdrew the charge on the grounds that too much time had passed, he did not get what he had always desired: a ruling that he was innocent.
"It was bad, bad form on the part of the Crown," said one of his lawyers, James Lockyer. "For the rest of his life, he had that cloud hanging over his head."
Even more outrageous, Mr. Phillion never saw a penny in compensation for all the years lost and the multiple attempts at suicide, including the one where he swallowed fishhooks. Although he filed a $14-million lawsuit against police and the Attorney-General of Ontario, the Crown challenged his right to do so all the way up to the Supreme Court, which refused in February of this year to hear its appeal, thus clearing the way for his day in civil court.
His civil lawyer, David Robins, said he will consult with the estate's trustee as to whether to proceed.
Besides Ms. Snowdon, Mr. Phillion leaves three other sisters and his "extended family" in the legal community.
At birth, there were only 15 minutes separating Mr. Phillion from his twin, Donald, and the two led lives that mirrored each other. Like Roméo, Donald Phillion had a lengthy criminal record and was sentenced to life in prison, in his case for two murders near Ottawa after an ill-fated drinking spree. About a decade ago, Donald died of emphysema, the same ailment that would claim the life of his twin.
After leaving prison in July, 2003, Roméo Phillion lived frugally on his old-age pension, rooming in a Mississauga townhouse with Howie Gelfand, a furniture salesman 23 years his junior who had been dating Mr. Phillion's late niece at the time he was released and provided his surety to the court. There, he was a man of habit and prison hours, getting up at 3 o'clock each morning to care for his three cats and going to bed between 8 and 9 p.m.
In between, when he wasn't out at AIDWYC events, he cooked simple meals that he learned how to make in prison and enjoyed a love-hate relationship with TV programs such as Dog the Bounty Hunter and Judge Judy – shows where justice, such as it is, always wins out in the end.
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