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Indigenous leaders, advocates call for judicial reform to address systemic racism after murder acquittal

Click to play video: 'Indigenous leaders, advocates call for judicial reform to address systemic racism after murder acquittal'
Indigenous leaders, advocates call for judicial reform to address systemic racism after murder acquittal
Leaders in Manitoba’s Indigenous community are calling for radical change within the criminal justice system to prevent more wrongful convictions of men like Brian Anderson and Allan John (A.J.) Woodhouse. Marney Blunt reports. – Jul 19, 2023

Leaders in Manitoba’s Indigenous community are calling for radical change within the criminal justice system to prevent more wrongful convictions of men like Brian Anderson and Allan John (A.J.) Woodhouse.

Dubbing it Canada’s “injustice” system, Cindy Woodhouse is asking for a task force to be formed to review and revise practices within the judicial system to address systemic racism.

“It’s a pattern of injustice and discrimination,” said Woodhouse, regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, at a Wednesday press conference.

Indigenous leaders and counsel from Innocence Canada, a national organization that advocates for the wrongly convicted, say cases like Anderson and A.J. Woodhouse’s should not happen.

“Yesterday was all about A.J. and Brian … after 50 years of purgatory,” said James Lockyer, a lawyer with Innocence Canada who took on the decades-old case.

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On Tuesday Court of King’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal acquitted the two men of the 1973 fatal stabbing of Ting Fong Chan in downtown Winnipeg.

Lockyer said there is “no doubt” other Indigenous men and women are behind bars under false convictions and his organization is working on figuring out who they are, including a few undisclosed cases in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

In the case of Anderson and A.J. Woodhouse, Innocence Canada lawyer Jerome Kennedy said the conviction was based on a confession obtained through “intimidation” and “violence.”

Anderson’s alleged confession came from a document that the now 68-year-old signed at the time without knowing what it was, while A.J. Woodhouse allegedly didn’t understand what was being said when he took the stand at trial as English is not his first language, Kennedy said.

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“We know there’s real injustice,” Kennedy said.

Though the two appealed to higher courts after their conviction they spent years behind bars before Anderson was released on parole in 1987 and Woodhouse in 1990.

In June, federal Justice Minister David Lametti ordered a new trial for the two men, citing unspecified new evidence, but on Tuesday Crown attorney Michelle Jules asked for an acquittal of Anderson and Woodhouse, who are Indigenous, saying systemic racism had affected the investigation and prosecution.

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The two men were convicted by an all-white, male jury and the prosecution was led by George Dangerfield, a former star attorney who has since had multiple convictions overturned based on the withholding of crucial information, presenting dubious evidence and calling shotty witnesses.

While a 2007 review of several cases handled by Dangerfield produced no results, in 2019 Innocence Canada called on the province to launch an inquiry into Dangerfield’s career.

Lockyer and Kennedy said they also plan to further review the conviction of Clarence and Russell Woodhouse, two other men pinned for Chan’s death at the time.

Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said justice has prevailed, but at a cost.

“We cannot allow the story of Mr. Anderson and Mr. Woodhouse to be repeated,” she said.

Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen said in an interview while the justice system is a “human system” and stopped short of calling it perfect, much has changed in the succeeding decades since Anderson and A.J. Woodhouse were convicted.

Goertzen said the justice department continues to look at ways to reform the system, ensure fair trials and avoid wrongful convictions.

Lockyer said while seeking compensation for the two men will be discussed, for the case to become a turning point in judicial reform would be just as sweet.

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“That’s our primary concern, people sitting in jail for crimes they didn’t commit because of systemic racism,” he said.

Others who have been wrongfully convicted have seen monetary compensation in the millions, including James Driskell who spent 13 years in prison for the murder of his friend Perry Harder. Driskell received $4 million as compensation for the wrongful conviction.

Cindy Woodhouse said while no amount of money will change what the men endured, it will make the remainder of their lives easier.

“Their families deserve peace,” she said.

Wearing a black t-shirt adorned with the word “innocent” on it at the news conference, A.J. Woodhouse said he hopes others in similar situations can also have their voices heard.

“If you know anybody who’s locked up right now, tell them to reach out, give them hope.”

Click to play video: '‘You are innocent’: 2 Indigenous men acquitted of 1973 murder in MB'
‘You are innocent’: 2 Indigenous men acquitted of 1973 murder in MB

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