The Liberal government says it is open to new options to address wrongful convictions, including an independent review panel as advocated by David Milgaard.
Mr. Milgaard was 16 when he was arrested in 1969 for a murder he didn’t commit and spent 23 years in prison. He was released after the Supreme Court of Canada overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial. Another man was later found guilty of the murder and Mr. Milgaard received $10-million in compensation from the Saskatchewan government. Mr. Milgaard and his mother, Joyce, have become two of Canada’s most vocal advocates for the rights of those found guilty for crimes they did not commit.
Mr. Milgaard said the federal government should set up an independent review panel to handle cases of wrongful conviction, a recommendation that’s been made by public inquiries into cases such as his.
Under the current process, government lawyers with the Criminal Conviction Review Group (CCRG) make recommendations to the federal justice minister. The process begins when a convicted person applies for a conviction review. If the review is based on new and significant information, such as evidence that shows a witness gave false testimony or if another person confesses to committing the crime, lawyers are likely to advise the justice minister that a remedy is warranted, such as ordering a new trial.
Bhavan Sodhi, legal counsel for Innocence Canada, an organization that advocates for individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, said an independent body would review cases as a self-standing organization. Ms. Sodhi said a potential issue of perceived bias could be solved by this proposal.
“So there’s that sense of independence that may not necessarily be achieved if it’s government lawyers who are employed by the Department of Justice who are overseeing some of these files,” she said.
Rachel Rappaport, press secretary for Justice Minister David Lametti, said the government is open to exploring ways to improve the wrongful conviction process.
“Our Government is committed to ensuring that effective mechanisms are in place to identify and respond to potential wrongful convictions,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
In addition to the CCRG, Ms. Rappaport said the special adviser on wrongful convictions, Morris Fish, a retired Supreme Court justice, provides independent advice to the minister on applications under the criminal conviction review process. Mr. Fish’s role was created by the government in 2018 to address any systemic problems identified during a review and to make recommendations to improve the process.
Advocates for legal reform, including Mr. Milgaard, say the current process is ineffective and lengthy.
In March, the Justice Minister quashed the conviction of Glen Assoun, who spent nearly 17 years in prison after being charged in 1998 with murder. Mr. Lametti said a federal inquiry determined relevant information was not provided to Mr. Assoun during his 1999 trial. Mr. Assoun was released from prison on bail in November, 2014, based on a preliminary assessment that determined he may have been wrongfully convicted.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in an e-mailed statement that an independent panel is a “sensible proposal" to prevent wrongful convictions in the future.
David Merner, justice critic for the Green Party, said the party supports Mr. Milgaard’s proposal.
Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann said in an e-mailed statement that the party’s platform around justice issues will be released during the campaign.
“Ensuring a fair justice system has long been a Conservative priority,” Mr. Hann said.