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As his convictions for kidnapping and sexual assault began to crumble in 1994, Michel Dumont was visited in his prison cell by a biker who apologized for repeatedly beating Mr. Dumont during his four years in jail.

"I'm still waiting for the Quebec government to apologize," said Mr. Dumont, sitting in the lunchroom of a Montreal hospital where he works as an electrician.

Having repeatedly been denied financial compensation for his 42 months in prison for a crime he didn't commit, Mr. Dumont's plight highlights a growing problem for the wrongly convicted.

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A federal-provincial program set up in 1988 to provide compensation in worthy cases has turned out to be a frustrating flop. Most of the wrongly convicted end up resorting to costly lawsuits in hopes of forcing authorities into an out-of-court settlement.

The roadblock for those seeking compensation is a slippery, ill-defined requirement known as "factual innocence," which needs to be satisfied before an individual can be compensated.

However, doing so is nearly impossible unless an individual has DNA on his side, said Winnipeg lawyer Hersh Wolch, an expert on the compensation issue. In cases such as that of Mr. Dumont, he said, DNA is not part of the evidence.

"The threshold is awfully high," Mr. Wolch said. "These are people who are usually on the poverty line. They don't have the resources for a protracted court proceeding. We need some kind of independent regime to settle these cases."

Mr. Dumont was charged on Nov. 17, 1990 after the complainant identified him from a photo lineup. She said Mr. Dumont grabbed her, put a knife to her throat as she was walking from an evening church service, and raped her in her home.

However, alibi witnesses placed Mr. Dumont at a card game that night, and there was nothing linking him to the crime except the complainant's identification of him.

Mr. Dumont said he was represented at trial by a civil lawyer with little experience in criminal cases. He realized he was in deep trouble only when the judge began disparaging his alibi witnesses.

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Nonetheless, Mr. Dumont said he was flabbergasted when the judge convicted him on Jan. 6, 1992. "There is no justice in Quebec," he yelled as he was led away.

Mr. Dumont was released on bail pending his appeal. However, he lost his appeal in 1994 and began serving a five-year term. On his first night in prison, Mr. Dumont recalled, an inmate told him: "You're dead. We don't want any sex maniacs here."

Soon afterward, he learned that a top biker had put a contract on his head. The alleged assassin, who was to be paid a gram of hashish, sharpened his shank in full view of Mr. Dumont.

Mr. Dumont sought out the biker who had offered the contract and begged for his life. He managed to persuade the man there was genuine doubt about his conviction. "I thought about suicide, too, but I would never see my kids again," Mr. Dumont said.

Unbeknownst to Mr. Dumont, the complainant had long since retracted her identification of him. In fact, only six months after his conviction, she had signed an affidavit clearing him.

Mr. Dumont was beaten up numerous times in jail, often by groups of three or four inmates who attacked him in his cell. Other inmates urinated on his mattress, smeared excrement on his cell walls and grabbed his meals off his plate in the prison cafeteria.

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Toward the end of his sentence, a local CBC television program exposed his case. The same inmates who had made his life so miserable began arriving to shake Mr. Dumont's hand.

Former federal justice minister Anne McLellan asked the Quebec Court of Appeal to review his conviction under a special Criminal Code procedure. Shortly after Mr. Dumont was released on parole, the Court of Appeal judges acquitted him on Feb. 22, 2001.

James Lockyer, a lawyer for the wrongly convicted, said that even outright acquittals are not enough to prove factual innocence, since technically speaking, an acquittal means only that the Crown could not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Governments are not so much trying to save dollars as they are unwilling to admit they were wrong," he said.

Only one Quebecker -- Réjean Pepin, a man who was wrongly convicted of armed robbery -- has been compensated during the 18 years the federal-provincial plan has existed. He received $188,000.

Mr. Wolch said there needs to be a third alternative in between the extreme of "begging and whining for mercy" and having to prove in court that police or prosecutors acted maliciously.

In an $8.7-million lawsuit he has launched against the Quebec government and the town of Boisbriand, Mr. Dumont cites his loss of freedom, the physical abuse he suffered, and the fact his three children were put in foster care while he was in prison.

Carlo Tarini, a public relations consultant who is acting on Mr. Dumont's behalf, said the federal government may ultimately agree to compensation in his case, but only if Quebec does so first.

"There is no greater sign of being innocent than when the only witness says the guy didn't do it," Mr. Tarini said. "But they are still telling Michel: 'No, go to court and sue us.' That's a bully tactic. It is the ultimate insult."

Mr. Dumont alleges that police failed to seize a blanket in the room where the alleged rape took place to test for DNA. Had they done so, he said, a tragedy could have been averted.

"If the cops had been more conscientious and the Crown more vigilant, this wouldn't have happened to me," Mr. Dumont said. "It would be so easy to apologize and recognize that they made a mistake. Instead, they contest it.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they have already spent $2-million of taxpayers' money just so they won't lose face. "If I were in their place, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night, knowing the suffering we have gone through."

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About the Author
Justice reporter

Born in Montreal, Aug. 3, 1954. BA (Journalism) Ryerson, 1979. Previously covered environment beat, Queen's Park. Toronto courts bureau from 1981-85. Justice beat from 1985 - present. More


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