Bringing wrongful convictions out of the shadows

September 24, 2018

Jail cells

Story by Rob Rombouts

Every year, thousands of Canadians are affected by wrongful conviction, blamed and punished for a crime that they did not commit, and in some cases, which did not even happen.

On October 2nd, students and faculty at Western University will take part in the 5th annual Wrongful Conviction Day. The event is part of a larger campaign, organized, in part, by Innocence Canada, to increase awareness of wrongful convictions.

The event at Western University will feature Jamie Nelson, delivering a talk entitled “Into the Shadows”. Nelson will speak about his experience with being wrongfully convicted, and with the criminal justice system.

Nelson went to prison for more than three years after an acquaintance accused him of brutally assaulting and then sexually assaulting her. Her accusations also resulted in similar charges for a number of other people in separate cases. Nelson was acquitted in 2001.

Kim Ashby has organized the event for the past four years. Ashby, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, teaches the 3rd year Criminology course Wrongfully Convicted. The course is the only criminology course in Canada focused on wrongful convictions and looks at social factors that impact wrongful convictions.

Wrongful convictions are often caused by public pressure and a lack of resources, Ashby explained.

Following a crime, police face public pressure to find a suspect, and will often pick someone from a marginalized community, or someone who is vulnerable. The police, Ashby said, often try to fit the evidence to their suspect, as opposed to using the evidence to help find a suspect.

The suspects are often marginalized people or those without resources to defend themselves, and are assigned duty counsel, lawyers at courthouses who can step in to help people who need immediate legal support. The duty counsel, Ashby said, are also over-worked and encourage many defendants to take plea bargains, admitting to committing the crime for a shorter jail sentence than what a trial may hand down.

“People accept that we are innocent until proven guilty,” said Ashby “but in the criminal justice system, it is often the opposite. People are thought to be guilty, and a lot of abuse occurs with people under police custody.”

MacKenzie Vozza is a 5th year sociology student. She took Ashby’s class, which introduced the issue of wrongful convictions to her.

Following her time in the class, Vozza began to seek volunteer opportunities with Innocence Canada. She is now a member of the organization’s nation-wide student council, and has helped organize the event at Western.

“It’s an issue that not many people know about,” said Vozza. “People won’t go out on their own and seek out information if they don’t know the issue exists.”

Vozza hopes the event will help raise awareness of the issue of Wrongful Convictions, and encourage other people to get involved in making changes to the system.

“It’s a social issue everyone should take an interest in, because it reflects a wider issue in our criminal justice system,” said Vozza. “A lot of people think that what is decided is always right, but there are a lot of holes in our criminal justice system, and the wider community should be aware of them.”

Wrongful Conviction Day is Tuesday, October 2. Jamie Nelson will speak at 11:00 am, in the McKellar Theatre, UCC. Everyone is welcome to attend. The Western University event is presented by the Department of Sociology, the Faculty of Law, and the Western Pre-Law Society.