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Canada’s Wrongfully Convicted: Why do wrongful convictions happen?

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This is part one of a five-part series examining wrongful convictions and why they happen.

Editor’s Note – This story has been revised to remove certain statements about the Reid Interrogation Technique.  Global News retracts statements in a previous version of this story indicating that the Reid Interrogation Technique involved withholding basic human needs such as food or water from a suspect.    

How much can we trust our eyes — and our memories — when submitting testimony that leads to a conviction?

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According to the U.S.-run nonprofit organization The Innocence Project, faulty eyewitness testimony was a contributing factor in about 70 per cent of convictions overturned through DNA testing in the US. It’s also a leading cause of wrongful conviction in Canada.

Professor of psychology and law at the University of California Irvine, Elizabeth Loftus, who’s one of North America’s most distinguished experts on memory, says we often place too much trust in our memories, and what we remember can easily be manipulated.

“Sometimes [it’s] just the long passage of time and the memory has faded. Sometimes people are exposed to suggestive and misleading — or wrong information. Sometimes, they’re given a test — a line-up — that isn’t fair.

“These are just a few reasons why sometimes witnesses may make these serious mistakes.”

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Faulty eyewitness testimony helped convict Toronto man Robert Baltovich of murdering his girlfriend Elizabeth Bain in 1992. He spent eight years in prison and once released, spent 10 more years trying to clear his name.

The Crown’s case relied heavily on the testimony of two people who claimed to have seen Robert and Elizabeth together on the day of her disappearance.

Despite the witnesses having only fuzzy recollections and there being serious doubts about the reliability of the testimony, Robert was convicted, handcuffed and hauled off to prison. Elizabeth Bain’s body has never been found.  

READ MORE: Travis Vader verdict: The McCann murders and other cases without bodies

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False confessions

Would you ever confess to a crime in which you had no involvement? It’s easy to think that you wouldn’t, but it’s more common than you may think.

Data from the Innocence Project reveals that in more than 25 per cent of cases where the individual was exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence, a false confession was given, and most people have trust in the justice system that it will prove their innocence down the track.  

University of Ottawa professor of criminology Kathryn Campbell — who leads the student-run Innocence Ottawa project — says false confessions are often born out of intense interrogation.

WATCH: Ivan Henry settles wrongful conviction lawsuit (2015)

Campbell says it’s a form of psychological breakdown.

Those things happen where your mind starts playing tricks on you, and you think, ‘I just want to get this over with,’ and people begin sometimes to question their own memory: ‘Maybe I did it?'”

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In 1991, Maria Shepherd was hauled before investigators and grilled about her involvement in the death of her three-year-old stepdaughter, Kasandra.

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Shepherd claims she was under extreme pressure during the interview with the investigators, and says she felt like she had no other choice but to confess to manslaughter.

Shepherd spent two years less a day in prison, eventually convicted on the flawed testimony from one-time-revered pediatric forensic pathologist Dr. Charles Smith. Complaints about his conduct led to a fresh investigation which found Shepherd’s stepdaughter died from natural causes.

Shepherd spent 25 years under a cloud of suspicion before being exonerated.

READ MORE: Maria Shepherd exonerated in death of her stepdaughter after decades

Tunnel vision

The dangerous and all-too-common phenomenon of tunnel vision occurs when investigators focus on one suspect to the exclusion of all others.

Although most investigators affected by tunnel vision don’t have sinister intent, they’re often under intense pressure to bring someone to justice, and pursue one line of inquiry. It was a key factor in the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin, who spent 18 months in prison for the 1984 rape and murder of his nine-year-old next-door neighbour Christine Jessop, north of Toronto.

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Police narrowed in on Morin after he was described as a “weird-type guy” who played the clarinet. It was from that point on that police became fixated on Morin as a suspect. It took him a decade to clear his name.  

WATCH: Nova Scotia man seeking justice for wrongful conviction (2014)

The subsequent Kaufman inquiry found investigators had relied all too heavily on the prospect that Morin may be guilty, instead of treating him like an innocent person first.

Startlingly, it also found those involved in the prosecution of Morin continued to show signs of tunnel vision at the inquiry proceedings, despite the fact that he had been acquitted by irrefutable DNA evidence.

In Part Two of ‘Canada’s Wrongfully Convicted,’ a special series from the Jon McComb show on 980 CKNW, we dig deeper into Robert Baltovich and Maria Shepherd’s stories, and their ongoing quest for justice.