Wrongful convictions happen. For those who understand the burden of proof the Crown must discharge in order to convict an accused, wrongful convictions seem almost impossible. Yet, for some incarcerated persons, this is a devastating reality. Since 1993, Innocence Canada has helped exonerate 21 people, who in total spent 190 collective years in prison.
In mid-October, Dalhousie law student Desiree Jones organized an event to raise awareness about wrongful convictions within Canada’s justice system. The event was both chilling and compelling, as attendees heard from panelists about the all-too-real experiences of people who spend time in prison for crimes they never committed, and reasons as to why these travesties occur. More needs to be done to address root causes of these problems.
Three of the people involved in the event, including Desiree Jones, Emma Halpern with the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Association, and Schulich Professor Adelina Iftene, provided some insight into the event:
Q: Can you discuss the background leading up to the planning of this event?
“I first became aware of wrongful convictions when I heard about Donald Marshall Jr. He remains at the forefront of my mind as the person who brought attention to wrongful convictions in Canada… The publicized nature of his wrongful conviction, among other efforts, resulted in a recognized need to increase representation of Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq law students in order to reduce discrimination in the legal system. My internship at Innocence Canada this past summer heightened my awareness and concern of wrongful convictions as a pressing issue in modern society that devastatingly affects too many individuals in our justice system.”
Q: How is it that wrongful convictions are as common as they are?
“It seems to me that wrongful convictions are so common because the public, along with numerous individuals who work in the legal profession, may have a lot of faith in our justice system and think it doesn’t allow for them to occur. Sometimes it’s not kept in the front of their minds as an issue that should influence their actions in regards to clients for example. Some people including law enforcement don’t understand that when we say wrongful convictions happen in today’s age it doesn’t mean people are deliberately acting to wrongly convict people. Rather, it means that often these things happen when minor issues slip through the cracks and when people fail to recognize and accept the various factors that lead to wrongful convictions.”
Q: What made you want to host a panel discussion on wrongful convictions?
“I wanted to host a panel discussion on wrongful convictions because after this summer I simply wanted more people to think about the wrongly convicted and care about preventing other innocent people from experiencing it. My summer internship with Innocence Canada made me realize that the issue isn’t discussed as much as it should be. The director of client services there, who plans a Wrongful Conviction Day event in Ontario on behalf of Innocence Canada, informed me that she has been trying to get the Wrongful Conviction Day recognized in Nova Scotia, particularly at Dal. During conversations with others at the office, it became clear that the first step to making change is getting people to talk about wrongful convictions and having it recognized as an important issue.”
Q: What are some ways in which law students can get involved to help?
“Law students can help by engaging with the literature already out there on wrongful convictions, if they don’t already have a sense of the numerous factors that contribute to their occurrence: both recognized and unrecognized factors. For example, two unrecognized but well known factors that lead to wrongful convictions are ineffective legal counsel and systemic racism. Once you have a sense of why they occur, look at some case studies so you can truly understand the effect it has on people and their families. More formally, Innocence Canada is always accepting volunteer law students if you want to have a more hands-on impact. I think what we can do [at Schulich] is try to develop our own innocence project, in the form of a course and/or a society that commits to wrongful conviction case work and legal education. Further, as you go on into your legal careers just keep this issue in mind as a conscious effort. An important thing that we can do is try to lobby for more government funding for Innocence Canada so they can continue to do the amazing work that they do, and create more viable positions for people who really want to do this work.”
Q: In what capacity do you envision yourself working to help those wrongfully convicted in the future?
“I envision myself, no matter where I end up articling and working, to continue to volunteer with Innocence Canada and support the organization in any way that I can, at the least. If I can find or create a viable career doing wrongful conviction work, I will do it because I am passionate about this issue. I plan to continue spreading the word and hold more events in the future to educate others on wrongful convictions.”
Q: Why is the discussion on wrongful convictions important for women?
“The issue of wrongful conviction matters for women because women are the fastest growing prison population in Canada. Women are being incarcerated at alarming rates because of a lack of supports, programs and resources in our communities. In order to properly address the wrongful conviction of women we need to expand our understanding of wrongful conviction to include wrongful guilty pleas and convictions where there was a viable defence, such as self defence, that was not put in front of the judge.”
Q: Why do you think an event discussing wrongful convictions is important?
“Student legal education in the fields of criminal law and criminal justice often ends at sentencing. This is somewhat in sync with our societal approach to criminal law: the criminal justice system is seen as infallible, no mistakes are ever made, and we need not worry about upholding legal standards once someone has been convicted. Events such as the Wrongful Convictions Panel are important steps in filling those gaps in education. They raise awareness to the fact that criminal law is as susceptible to human error as any other field, and that such errors shatter lives and undermine the credibility of a whole system of rights. Ran by students dedicated to social and criminal justice, such events link students, experts, community members, and people with lived experience. [This is] an attempt to encourage critical consideration of what ought to be done to minimize the conditions that lead to wrongful convictions, but also how to better ensure the existence of mechanisms that may permit for such errors, when they do occur, to be uncovered and remediated. The Wrongful Convictions Panel held in October was a splendid, successful example of such an event.”
Special thanks to everyone who participated. Weldon, stay tuned for future events and for information on how to get involved!