The funeral song – "Bridge Over Troubled Water" – was sung by a relative of a man hanged in Quebec in 1956, whose guilt some still dispute.
And among the 80 mourners were names known across the country. Ron Dalton, a bank manager wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Robert Baltovich, wrongly convicted of killing his girlfriend. Gary Comeau, a biker convicted in a 1978 murder who still hopes to clear his name.
They had come to pay their respects to Roméo Phillion, the most admired of all the wrongly convicted – the one who served the most time in prison and would not accept parole if it meant falsely admitting guilt. And the stories they told about his unimaginably hard life – about his parents who sent him and his twin brother off at the age of 8 to a boys' home that later became notorious for abuse, about an alibi report for the 1967 murder of Ottawa firefighter Leo Roy that gathered dust in police records for decades, about the 31 1/2 years behind bars – were of the resiliency of his spirit.
"The David Milgaards and Donald Marshalls and Steven Truscotts – we all looked up to Roméo for the amount of time he had done and the kind of person he was," Mr. Dalton, who spent eight-and-a-half years in prison in Newfoundland and Labrador, said in a tribute to Mr. Phillion at his funeral in Mississauga, Ont.
"They locked his body up for years, but they could never touch his spirit." In the "club" of the wrongly convicted, he was the one with the least bitterness, Mr. Dalton said.
All the club members knew one another. Mr. Phillion attended court hearings involving other wrongly accused people. And a criminal defence lawyer had twice lent them his cottage near Algonquin Park where they could shoot the breeze for a few days. Donald Marshall of Nova Scotia, David Milgaard of Manitoba, Randy Druken of Newfoundland and Labrador, Réjean Hinse of Quebec, Mr. Dalton and Mr. Comeau and Mr. Phillion were all there. Mr. Phillion had tears in his eyes when he met Mr. Marshall, the first to have been cleared by a royal commission of inquiry, Mr. Dalton said. (Mr. Comeau, the ex-biker, cried when he met Mr. Marshall, according to Win Wahrer, director of client services for the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted [AIDWYC], who was also there.)
"These are the tough kind of guys who break down around each other," Mr. Dalton, 59, said in an interview, "guys who minimize their own suffering and appreciate what other people have been through."
Mr. Baltovich, who spent nine years in prison, said in an interview that what impressed him most was Mr. Phillion's refusal to admit guilt, even if it meant denying himself a way out of jail on parole after three decades inside. "Most human beings would have swallowed their pride and said, 'Just let me out.' He never did. To me that makes him a giant."
Mr. Phillion's case influenced a generation of law students who volunteered with AIDWYC or Osgoode Hall's Innocence Project, and who now are criminal defence lawyers, prosecutors and in at least one case, an Ontario Court judge.
"I just hope that none of us ever forget those lessons that we were taught," Anna Martin, 38, a prosecutor with the federal Public Prosecution Service who articled with the lawyers who secured Mr. Phillion's freedom, said in an interview at the funeral.
She was there in Toronto when Mr. Phillion, who had been freed a week earlier, went to see if the CN Tower, built when he was in prison, actually stood straight.
James Lockyer, AIDWYC's founding director, told the mourners that, when he went to bring Mr. Phillion home from prison, Mr. Phillion said he would not leave without his pet cat – and Mr. Lockyer had to ask the warden for permission to take it.
All spoke of a man whose sense of humour and sarcasm were a constant. "He was a really gentle man," Dave Moran, whose father was a cousin of Wilbert Coffin, who was executed in 1956, said in an interview. "He loved being the centre of attention, with a smile on his face."
He never did receive the complete exoneration he sought. In 2003, he was released on bail after a correctional officer discovered a copy of a 1968 police report on his alibi – that he was 237 kilometres away from the scene of the crime, at a gas station. Mr. Lockyer got him freed on bail, pending an appeal. Six years later, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the jury verdict of guilty, but did not clear his name; instead, it sent his case on for another trial. The Crown said too much time had passed and withdrew the charge.
This year, the Supreme Court of Canada said Mr. Phillion could sue Ottawa police and prosecutors. "There wasn't a conversation where he didn't say – because it tortured his soul – those people who did this terrible thing to him had to be held accountable," Ms. Wahrer told the mourners.
His nephew, Aaron Macdonald Snowdon, 24, told the mourners: "Roméo was a fighter from a boy to the end."