May 1, 2015
If I’m right, the Supreme Court of Canada will rule today that wrongly convicted Ivan Henry has the right to sue the Crown for a breach of the Charter—no-one can be deprived of life, liberty and security of the person “except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”
Henry’s lawyers argued in November 2014 that the Crown failed to disclose at trial a raft of potentially exculpatory information, including contradictory victim statements; the recovery of spermatozoa from some of the victims; and the fact that Donald McRae, a prolific sexual predator, had been a suspect.
As the law now stands, a wrongly convicted person must prove “malicious prosecution”—namely, an intentional abuse or perversion of the system of criminal justice for ends it was not designed to serve. In setting the bar so high twenty-five years ago, the highest Court in the land said it would be sufficient to ensure that the Crown would not be hindered in “the proper execution of its important public duties.”
The Court was right—only one case has succeeded since then.
However, should the Supreme Court of Canada rule in Henry’s favour, the need for proving malice will, at least in cases of wrongful conviction, be gone. Instead, any wrongly convicted person will simply be required to establish, at the very most, a “marked departure” from the standards expected of prosecutors within the profession.
In practical terms, what if any impact would such a decision have on Henry himself? From a legal perspective, precious little. While lawyers wrangle about the law’s niceties, Henry remains penniless; hoping that justice—the hard, cold cash kind—will occur before he dies.
Sentenced as a dangerous offender in 1983 for ten sex crimes he did not commit (see my book Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry (Heritage House, 2014)), Henry spent 27 years in prison before being acquitted—found “not guilty”—by the B.C. Court of Appeal in 2010. Arguing that he has not proven his factual innocence, the state has yet to pay him a dime in compensation.
Yet who among us could establish—if charged with a serious crime—that we are innocent? Absent DNA (in Henry’s case, the police “lost” the semen samples); an iron-clad alibi (the police and Crown failed to investigate his alibi statement); and/or the confession of the actual perpetrator (a man who went on to commit a minimum of 25, as high as 50, reported rapes after Henry was behind bars), proving actual innocence is well nigh impossible.
So much for the presumption of innocence, that “golden thread” supposedly running through our criminal justice system. The problem is that, once lost, that state of innocence is seemingly impossible to recover—no matter how reprehensible the behaviour of police and Crown.
Now sixty-eight, Henry has no money—no pension, no savings (he’d spent the pittance he earned in prison trying to win his freedom), and no job. Virtually unemployable, his health affected by years of inadequate medical and dental treatment, he has dedicated himself to alleviating the suffering endured by his two adult daughters by reason of his longterm incarceration. Tragically, the younger daughter passed on earlier this year. Henry blames the state for her demise—not just for wrongly convicting him in the first place, but for their abysmal treatment of him post-release.
(As a disturbing aside, guilty offenders get treated better than the wrongly convicted. Once released, they have the benefit of a half-way house, including board and room and the camaraderie of a peer group; help with job searches, financial and psychological counseling; etc.)
Should Henry succeed, a small ray of hope might open for him—the possibility that the defendants might see the light and initiate serious settlement discussions.
In 1999, David Milgaard received a $10 million settlement for his wrongful conviction. The facts of the Ivan Henry case cry out for a sum well in excess of that.
As though any amount of money could compensate him for the life of pain and suffering he has endured.
Still and all, money is money, and a nudge from the Supreme Court of Canada in the right direction cannot hurt.