Macleans Canada

Wrongful convictions plague justice systems in Canada and abroad, says report
By Stephen Thorne
January 25, 2005--17:32

OTTAWA (CP) - Wrongful convictions continue to plague justice systems in Canada and elsewhere despite studies and reports on the issue, says a report by federal, provincial and territorial prosecutors and police.

"Various commissions and studies in Canada and around the world have provided valuable insight into the systemic causes of wrongful convictions and into what has gone wrong in individual cases," the report says.

"What is startling, however, is that some problems, themes and mistakes arise time and time again, regardless of where the miscarriage of justice took place."

Fault lies with the conduct of police, prosecutors, defence lawyers, judges and forensic scientists, and they are not confined to proceedings in the courtroom, says the report.

Like disasters, miscarriages of justice are rarely the result of a single mistake or event but almost always the result of a series of events, says the report presented Tuesday at a conference of justice ministers.

There are no simple solutions, it says, and responsibility to prevent wrongful convictions lies with all participants in all jurisdictions of the criminal justice system.

"Police officers, Crown counsel, forensic scientists, judges and defence counsel all have a role to play in ensuring that innocent people are not convicted of crimes they didn't commit," says the report.

"As useful as commissions of inquiry may be, they usually come many years after the fact. The goal of all justice system participants must be to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring in the first place."

At the conclusion of the two-day ministers meeting, federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler lauded what he called the "landmark" report, saying he plans to ensure it is distributed internationally.

"The purpose is to prevent wrongful convictions," Cotler said. "We want to work to prevent the wrongful convictions to begin with, and this report details recommendations as to how that can be done."

The ministers issued a communique outlining a broad range of issues they discussed, including limiting conditional sentences, improving the management of mega-trials, federal funding of legal aid, detaining those charged with youth crimes and protecting vulnerable people.

The 155-page committee report says common factors come up in wrongful convictions in Canada and elsewhere.

It devotes a chapter to each with 40 recommendations:

-Tunnel vision, or "the single-minded and overly narrow focus on an investigation or prosecutorial theory," is the leading cause of false convictions.

-Mistaken eyewitness identification and testimony can come from "the most well-meaning, honest and genuine eyewitness."

-A New York study found 35 of the first 130 post-conviction exonerations - 27 per cent - made on DNA evidence involved false confessions.

-In-custody informers are notoriously unreliable yet still factor in a significant percentage of cases that end in wrongful convictions.

-While not proof that one person or another committed a crime, DNA evidence has proven many cases of false conviction.

-"Tainted, tailored and unsubstantiated expert evidence couched in scientific terms and language, based on unreliable fact and ultimately debunked science" is a leading cause of wrongful convictions.

The reporting panel led by Rob Finlayson, Manitoba assistant deputy attorney general, concludes that the criminal justice system must constantly guard against factors that can contribute to miscarriages of justice.

Focusing primarily on serious crimes such as homicides, its recommendations target everyone from individual police officers and prosecutors to police forces and prosecution services.

The report stresses the need for continuing education and urges each prosecution service to develop a comprehensive written plan to educate its prosecutors on the causes and prevention of wrongful convictions.

It also recommends creation of a virtual resource centre on the issue for police and prosecutors and establishment of a permanent prosecutors' committee on the prevention of wrongful convictions.

"The risk of error always exists in any human endeavour," it says. "In the justice system, the consequences of a wrongful conviction can be tragic.

"The working group hopes its recommendations, if implemented, will go a long way towards reducing the risk of future wrongful convictions and ensuring that the innocent are acquitted and the guilty convicted."

For Full Report:

How the System Works
Truth in Justice