Barring a last-minute delay, lawyers for Ivan Henry will be in B.C. Supreme Court next week looking for money. Mr. Henry is seeking damages against the province for gross negligence in his wrongful-conviction case.
Most of the country has never heard of Mr. Henry. By rights, his story should be as renowned as those of David Milgaard or Steven Truscott – men who also spent large chunks of their lives behind bars for crimes they didn't commit. Mr. Henry's case bears many similarities to theirs, certainly when it comes to the loathsome way police and the Crown conducted themselves in their single-minded determination to finger someone for a string of rapes in early-1980s Vancouver.
The tale, in all its ugliness, is laid out in a new book, Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry. It's written by Vancouver lawyer Joan McEwen and is a remarkable undertaking of research. In meticulous detail, Ms. McEwen lays out the grotesquely thin, not to mention corrupt, case that was successful in putting an innocent 35-year-old man behind bars for 27 years. As the book makes clear, spending time in jail as a purported rapist is not a pleasant experience – even prisons have standards.
Mr. Henry's life tale is a pathetic one. Raised in Regina, he quit school in Grade 8 to flee an abusive home. He embarked on a life of crime, first petty and then not so petty. He spent time in prison for robbery and attempted rape. An angel he was not. Out of prison, he settled in Vancouver with a drug-addicted wife and two daughters.
In 1982, the city was being terrorized by a serial rapist. Police were under increasing pressure to find who was doing it. One day, Mr. Henry was pulled over at a traffic stop. In quick order, he found himself being interrogated and then charged with assaulting 17 women. Mr. Henry chose to clumsily defend himself when he became convinced his legal aid lawyer was part of a conspiracy to put him behind bars.
As was later revealed, Mr. Henry was nowhere near the scene where most of the crimes were committed. Police didn't check out his rock-solid alibis. Semen collected from several victims was never sent for testing to see if it matched the suspect. Three police officers put him in a choke-hold for the police lineup photo. His prior conviction for attempted rape was erroneously allowed into evidence at the jury trial. And there were other, equally egregious examples of authorities abusing due process to get a conviction under any circumstances.
Mr. Henry was ultimately found guilty of 10 sex crimes, declared a dangerous offender and sent off to prison to serve an indefinite sentence.
In 1990, his dying wife confessed to a daughter that her husband was innocent. She had fingered him to get a $1,000 reward being offered by police that she used to support her drug habit. But it took 20 more years before an appeal court would recognize the miscarriage of justice and make Mr. Henry a free man.
In Canada, the wrongfully convicted are never truly set free. Most are not exonerated by the courts – merely acquitted. Mr. Henry walked out of court with less support for his transition to life on the outside than a paroled murderer would get. And his transition has been difficult – with little financial means, he lives in the basement of his daughter's home. He faces a fight to get government compensation for the 27 years he lost.
Ms. McEwen was shocked when she dove into this case and discovered the extent to which Mr. Henry was railroaded into prison. She is rightfully distressed by the shabby way that people unjustly convicted of a crime, and robbed of a free life, are treated upon their release from prison.
Mr. Henry's tragic story deserves to be included in a gallery of the worst examples of wrongful convictions in our country's history. Ms. McEwen would like to see him fully absolved of the crimes he didn't commit, not just cleared. And if there is any justice in our sometimes fallible justice system, he will be.