CTV Canada

Victims of Justice

Katherine Janson, W-FIVE

A Select Club

  • David Milgaard - Wrongly convicted of murder. Served 23 years.
  • Donald Marshall Jr. - Wrongly convicted of murder. Served 11 years.
  • Guy Paul Morin - Wrongly convicted of murder. Served 1½ years.
It's a select club, totalling about 30 members so far -- and the membership is growing. But theirs is a club that not one of these men ever wanted to join. Because all of them served sentences for crimes they didn't commit.

Today, they are all free -- exonerated of the heinous crimes that tarred their names -- but they may never be free of the stigma. Upon their release from incarceration, they return to a world that is forever changed and they themselves may never be the same.

"When I got of prison I was a black and white person," says Thomas Sophonow, who served four years in prison. You either trust or you don't trust, he said, but there's nothing in between.

The crime Sophonow was wrongly convicted of was heinous. On December 23, 1981, 16-year-old waitress Barbara Stoppel was found strangled and left for dead in a washroom at a doughnut shop in Winnipeg.

Three months later, Thomas Sophonow was charged with her murder. Even though he had an alibi and there was no physical evidence linking him to the attack, he was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison. All the while, Sophonow maintained his innocence.

After four years behind bars, Sophonow was set free when the Manitoba court of appeal unanimously overturned his conviction. But his nightmare was far from over. Everywhere Sophonow went, he was treated as a man who got away with murder.

"That was the core of my anger," he said.

So how did he survive this scrutiny and disdain? Where did he put all the frustration of living with a truth that no one else would accept?

"I just kept it bottled up inside. I would occasionally just blow up and just get mad, just totally freak out."

It was not until the summer of 2000 that the Manitoba Government finally called for a public inquiry and issued Sophonow an apology. But despite final and full exoneration—with DNA proof that he didn't attack and kill Barbara Stoppel -- Sophonow still suffers under the weight of his ordeal.

These days, he rebuilds his new life in New Westminster, BC, as he renovates the heritage home he lives in with his wife and three kids. But Sophoneow still lives under the sinister shadow cast by his conviction as a murderer.

"Until I can overcome my mental block and talk about issues, it'll always be there. But I haven't -- I'm not there yet," he said.

Putting a label on the pain

During the public inquiry into his wrongful conviction, Sophonow sought treatment from Dr. Adrian Grounds, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge who is internationally recognized for his work on the damage done to the wrongly convicted.

"They may get panic attacks, nightmares, vivid memories of particular experiences, adverse experiences that they've had in prison," Dr. Grounds told W-FIVE in an interview.

Prison had a profound affect on Sophonow -- something his wife, Rebecca, noticed almost immediately when they met. "He used to pace, that was something that always stuck in my mind. He would put his head down and just walk back and forth across the room. A certain amount of steps it seemed, like he did when he was in jail."

W-FIVE's Victor Malarek asked Sophonow what it was like to spend four years in prison for something he didn't do.

Thomas Sophonow says 'When I got of prison I was a black and white person.'

Ron Dalton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for strangling his wife, Brenda.

In 1995, Randy Druken was convicted of the brutal stabbing death of his 26-year-old girlfriend, Brenda Young.

James Lockyer, a prominent lawyer and co-founder of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

"I don't talk about prison," said Sophonow, his eyes welling with tears. "I just don't talk about it."

Even after all these years, it's difficult to go back there.

"Take one day at a time," he said. "Take one hour at a time."

A Crime that Never Was

Across the country in St. John's, Newfoundland, Ron Dalton counted thousands of hours for a crime that never was. In 1989, the university-educated bank manager was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for strangling his wife, Brenda.

"I can always hear my mother there someplace in the background, screeching as the jury comes back in and says guilty," he said. In an instant, Dalton lost everything he held dear.

When he went to prison, his sister Linda Gallant and her husband Sonny took in Dalton's three children and raised them alongside their own three kids.

"The worst part about being in prison was being away from (your children) when you're used to spending every day of your life with them," he said.

It would take eight and a half years in prison before Dalton was released on bail, his original conviction questioned, but facing a new trial on the same charges. Coming home to his family was what he always wanted, but that didn't make it easy.

"It was difficult, very difficult. Coming home my three children were still with my sister and her husband. I was out of prison, but I wasn't free to pick up the pieces," he explained.

Dalton had to split his attention between his growing children and his new trial, which he couldn't afford to lose. "I wouldn't move them back in with me and then have to give them up again a year later if I was convicted a second time."

Forensic evidence eventually proved his wife choked on cereal. Dalton was acquitted in the 2000 trial, but he is still struggling to regain the stolen years.

Linda Gallant sees her brother's loss every time she looks into his face.

"When I look at him and I remember his children it was just, just a sadness there (in his face), that he missed a lot. And it's an ongoing thing because you cannot ever make that back up," she said.

Learning to Reconnect

Of all the losses a wrongly convicted person has to cope with, losing the ability to trust people is a pervasive and lasting effect, says Dr. Grounds.

"Some people remain in a state of permanent mistrust. That sense of confidence in the stability and predictability of the world, the fact that you can rely on people has gone forever," he said.

Ron Dalton explains how prison has affected him: "It's made me much less trusting and it's harder to form close relationships. It's harder to trust people, (knowing) that you've been burned by so many people who are there."

And the scars take a very long time to fade.

"That mark of Cain is always there. You know, you're branded as a murderer," he said.

Lasting Effects

In 1995, Randy Druken was convicted of the brutal stabbing death of his 26-year-old girlfriend, Brenda Young. He was released on bail in 1999 and eventually exonerated by DNA evidence, but life has never returned to normal.

"What I want most I'll never be able to get right for things to be the way they were. But I'll settle for my life you know," he said.

Druken served his sentence in the Atlantic Institution, a maximum-security prison located in Renous, New Brunswick.

"There was times that... I even wanted to kill myself, you know. Again I had to think of reasons why not to," he said.

"I had to, you know, try to find strength in other peoples' ordeals that they were going through when they were trying to survive."

In order to cope in prison, he used to go to the library and get books on the Holocaust to read about those who had done time in concentration camps.

"Not that I went through anything what they went through, but the stories that they wrote helped me to get through what I was going through," he said.

With few places to turn in prison, Randy also turned to drugs. Although they dulled his pain, Randy eventually emerged from prison with a powerful drug addiction. And he was not equipped to deal with how much had changed.

"I got addicted to CONTIN MS's, which is a painkiller for cancer patients. When I come out I was wired into morphine and I remember there for a while I wouldn't even do Oxycontins on the street. It didn't do nothing for me -- that's how high the drug was that I was doing in jail."

Bill Collins is Randy Druken's lawyer of 20 years and probably one of his only real friends. In Collins' opinion the drugs offered Randy a crutch.

"Randy was ashamed of the fact that people thought that he was the killer. He was insecure in any social setting whatsoever. I think it was just a way to escape the world, and possibly, life," says Collins.

Unable to escape the stronghold of his wrongful conviction and the lasting psychological damage, Randy has cycled in and out of jail four more times since his release.

"Each time I come back it was because of drugs. There was times I asked the courts to put me in jail to get off this problem to get away from this drug problem," said Druken.

Getting what they deserve

The system of support for the wrongly convicted is just not good enough for James Lockyer, a prominent lawyer and co-founder of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. He says the government has a responsibility to these men.

"They obviously need social help from professionals and those professionals, it seems to me, should be provided by and paid for by the state. As well, the other way the state can and should help is by providing compensation."

Of about 30 wrongful convictions in Canada, so far only about a dozen men have received a cash settlement for their time in prison. But getting compensation has always been, and continues to be, an uphill struggle. And that's the case for Ron Dalton.

"Compensation is the way governments apologize. They apologize with their chequebooks. An apology, a formal acknowledgement of innocence would be nice, but government's rarely do that as well," he said.

Randy Druken desperately wants to straighten out his life but he knows he's got one very big mountain to climb.

"I got to do it this time or it's going to kill me."

In March 2003, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced a public inquiry into alleged miscarriages of justice in the cases of three men, including Randy Druken and Ronald Dalton. Druken and Dalton are still awaiting the results of the Lamer inquiry, which should be released by June 1, 2006.

And while it's been 20 years since Thomas Sophonow walked out of prison a free man, his past continues to haunt him.

In 2003, Sophonow was awarded $2.6 million in compensation—17 years after his release. But he insists that the time he spent in jail for a crime he didn't commit can never be repaid.

"No. No. Actually no. To tell you the truth, no compensation would pay for all the years," says Sophonow.

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