The Canadian justice system conceded another miscarriage of justice yesterday, this time in the bizarre case of a man imprisoned for a murder that most likely was a fluke accident.
After serving 1,872 days behind bars for the first-degree murder of his wife Janice, Clayton Johnson first was granted a new trial and then was acquitted in a day-long roller coaster of legal manoeuvring.
Just five hours after hearing the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal grant his retrial, the 56-year-old man listened in tears as the province's top judge acquitted him and virtually insisted that the country see Mr. Johnson for what he is, an innocent man.
That Mr. Johnson was forced to spend five years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit was, "to state the obvious, regrettable," Supreme Court of Nova Scotia Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy said in a voice tinged with indignation.
"The conviction in this matter has been quashed," he declared loudly. "Let's not be equivocal about it." In an interview shortly afterward, Mr. Johnson expressed thanks to the chief justice. "This not only brings justice for me, but for Janice, too," he said. "Now she can rest in peace."
Mr. Johnson was convicted of the murder three years after his 36-year-old wife died on Feb. 20, 1989. She was found unconscious at the bottom of the basement stairs of their home in Shelburne, N.S.
The basement washing machine was on. Ms. Johnson was lying, gasping for breath, in a large pool of blood. Her car keys were clutched in her hand and a high-heeled shoe was nearby, leaving a clear inference that she had misgauged a step while rushing up to meet a friend who was coming over with his daughter so Ms. Johnson could take the child to a local carnival.
Police looked carefully at Mr. Johnson at the time. He was not charged with murder until 1992 when an officer became suspicious because Mr. Johnson had remarried so soon after the incident and because he had collected on a $125,000 insurance policy following his wife's death.
Yesterday's outcome, engineered behind the scenes by the Nova Scotia Crown in conjunction with James Lockyer and Philip Campbell, lawyers for the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, was a closely guarded secret to all but the family and close friends.
Two dozen of them sat, alternately teary-eyed and beaming, as Mr. Johnson broke down repeatedly during a press conference and had to ask one of his daughters to read a statement.
"It has been 13 long years, and at last the world knows I didn't kill the woman I loved," 18-year-old Darla Johnson read for him.
Crown officials said they were conceding the case because new scientific evidence left "no reasonable prospect" of convicting Mr. Johnson at a new trial. They refused to express any regrets, insisting at a press conference that they had merely done their duty throughout.
Martin Herschorn, director of public prosecutions, said the majority of the 22 forensic experts who were consulted now believe Ms. Johnson likely died in an accidental fall.
"I don't view this as a failure of the justice system," he said. "This is the justice system functioning as it should."
Mr. Campbell strongly disagreed. He said the justice system became blinded by science and treated a loving husband and father as "some kind of ruthless, deadly assassin."
Had it used plain common sense and reason, Mr. Campbell said, Mr. Johnson would never have been even a suspect. Mr. Lockyer added that at the very least, Mr. Johnson deserves generous compensation and an apology from the provincial government.
Mr. Johnson intends to continue living in the small town of Shelburne, where he has been building furniture and doing home renovations since his release on bail in 1998.
Mr. Johnson's daughters, Darla and Dawn, were 12 and 9 when their mother died. In effect orphaned by their father's conviction, they thanked their community for its support yesterday.
Shortly after Ms. Johnson's death, he married a local woman, Tiny Weybret, in the hope that she could help him raise his two daughters. With her new husband suddenly jailed for life, Ms. Weybret reluctantly divorced him and remarried. The children were left to be raised by relatives. Clayton Johnson and other wrongly accused victims
1953: The bodies of three American hunters are found in Quebec's Gaspé region.
1956: Mr. Coffin is hanged after being convicted of murder and losing a series of appeals. His defenders argue that he was framed by the government of then premier Maurice Duplessis, which feared the case would hurt tourism if left unsolved.
1959: The raped and strangled body of Lynne Harper, 12, is found near Clinton, Ont. Three months later, Steven Truscott, then 14, is convicted.
1969: He is released from prison and begins a long campaign for vindication.
2000: He asks the federal government for a formal review.
1969: The partly clad body of Gail Miller, 20, is found in a Saskatoon snowbank.
1970: Mr. Milgaard is sentenced to life in prison for murder.
1992: The Supreme Court of Canada recommends a new trail after hearing evidence of a series of rapes committed in Saskatoon by another man. Mr. Milgaard is freed.
1971: Sandy Seale, 16, is fatally stabbed in a Sydney, N.S. park where he was seen with Mr. Marshall. Mr. Marshall is convicted of murder.
1982: He is cleared after witnesses in his trial say they lied under pressure from Sydney Police. Another man is later convicted of manslaughter.
1981: Waitress Barbara Stoppel, 16, is found strangled in a washroom at a St. Boniface, Man., doughnut shop.
1982-85: Mr. Sophonow is arrested, tried three times and convicted twice before being freed by the Manitoba Court of Appeal on grounds of legal errors in the third trial.
Guy Paul Morin
1984: The body of Christine Jessop, 9, is found in a field.
1985-92: Mr. Morin is arrested, tried, acquitted, tried again and convicted of murder.
1995: He is cleared and offered compensation after DNA testing excludes him as the source of semen found on the child's underwear.
1988: Brenda Dalton, 29, dies of asphyxiation in Gander, Nfld.
1989-2000: Mr. Dalton, her husband, is convicted of strangling her and is imprisoned. He eventually wins a new trial at which he is acquitted after forensic pathologists testify that Ms. Dalton choked to death on food.
1989: Janice Johnson, 36, is found with fatal head injuries at the bottom of the basement stairs in her Shelburne, N.S., home.
1993-2001: Mr. Johnson, her husband, is convicted of bludgeoning her to death.
2001: The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal orders a retrial yesterday, then the province's top judge acquits him.
1991: Catherine Carroll is killed in her St. John's home.
1994: Mr. Parsons, her son, is convicted of murder.
1998: DNA evidence clears him. Police later charge a former family friend with murder.
1993: Brenda Marie Young, 26, is found stabbed to death in her St. John's home.
1995: Mr. Druken, her boyfriend, is convicted of murder.
1999-2000: The conviction is set aside and prosecutors halt proceedings after a jailhouse witness recants testimony that Mr. Druken confessed to him.