REGINA – A Newfoundland man wrongfully convicted of killing his wife more than 25 years ago says major recommendations made after public inquiries into cases such as his tend to “sit on the shelf.” Chief among them, Ron Dalton says, is the call for an independent federal commission, similar to one adopted nearly 20 years ago in England, to review possible miscarriages of justice.
The creation of such a body has been called for in no fewer than five different provincial inquiries.
Dalton, who is now co-president of The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, says politicians don’t take the issue seriously.
“The reality is there are no votes in justice,” says Dalton, who spent more than eight years in jail for killing his wife who had choked on cereal.
“Get tough on crime sounds good, and build more prison cells, but when it comes to actually looking at some of the underlying problems, the structural things – what they call systemic issues in most of these inquiries – they don’t really get looked at and there’s not much appetite for change.”
Currently, someone who has been convicted of an offence and who has exhausted all appeals can only apply to the minister of justice for a review.
An independent review commission was called for at the inquiry into one of Canada’s worst wrongful convictions.
David Milgaard was 16 years old when he was convicted of the 1969 murder of Saskatoon nursing aide Gail Miller. He spent 23 years behind bars before the Supreme Court threw out his conviction in 1992. He was exonerated in 1997 through DNA tests.
An $11.2-million inquiry into Milgaard’s wrongful conviction was launched by the Saskatchewan government in 2004.
After hearing from 133 witnesses Justice Edward MacCallum wrote in his report released in 2008 that such a commission might limit the need for similar inquiries in the future.
“Public inquiries will continue to be desirable, or even necessary, in some situations, but they are very expensive exercises, and they are not the answer,” he said. “The answer lies in the creation of an independent review body which will be able to investigate, detect and assist in remedying wrongful convictions.”
The federal Department of Justice did not make anyone available for an interview.
In an email, spokesman Ian McLeod pointed to the Criminal Conviction Review Group, which has been in existence since 1994.
That group is a unit of the Justice Department and reports to the minister. That’s not the same thing as an independent review, Dalton says.
“As I society … when we see all these mistakes not being addressed, we tend to lose faith in the system itself – and the system basically operates on faith.
“You have to believe that when you call the police, they’re going to thoroughly investigate any given crime, but particularly a homicide, that they may not always get it perfectly right, but if they don’t that there’ll be a mechanism to correct it as … quickly as they can.”