The Role of Police in Wrongful Convictions in Canada

Posted: October 5, 2011 by jasveen89 in Uncategorized
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The Role of Police in Wrongful Convictions in Canada

The wrongful conviction of innocent people has gradually been recognized over the last quarter of a century as a problem for the Canadian criminal justice system. It is extremely difficult to determine the number of wrongful convictions in Canada. One of the major aspects of wrongful convictions is the tunnel vision; it results when there is a narrow focus on a limited range of alternatives. Tunnel vision is insidious and it results in the police officer becoming so confused upon an individual or incident that no other person or incident register’s in the officer’s thoughts.

While conducting an initial Google search on the topic “The Role of Police in Wrongful Convictions in Canada”, a number of interesting cases emerged. One of the result was a news article published by CBC news that highlights some major cases in Canadian history. This article has twelve cases and a brief description for each case and it is fairly recent because it was updated in October/2010.

An interesting case that was found during the preliminary research done on the topic is the case of Donald Marshall Jr case. The late Mr. Marshall was as a young Aboriginal man from Nova Scotia imprisoned 11 years for a murder he did not commit. The Marshall case was the subject of the first public inquiry into a wrongful conviction in Canada. The inquiry first raised awareness about wrongful convictions and it also made important recommendations about how to prevent them in the future.

Another interesting case was found is the case of Tammy Marquardt A young single mother from Ontario who was imprisoned for 13 years for the murder of her two and one half year son on the basis of erroneous forensic pathology expert testimony that the cause of her son’s death was asphyxia.

These two case studies illustrate the two main ways that wrongful convictions are revealed in Canada. Donald Marshall’s murder conviction was overturned after the federal Minister of Justice granted his petition for a new appeal on the basis of fresh evidence and after Marshall had exhausted appeals all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Tammy Marquardt’s wrongful conviction was overturned when the Supreme Court of Canada granted her leave to make a late and normally out of time appeal. The Court of Appeal then held that the murder conviction could was a miscarriage of justice in light new forensic pathology evidence that the case of death was not asphyxia but unascertained. A new trial was ordered, but the prosecutor withdrew charges and the trial judge apologized for what happened to Ms. Marquardt and her son. Both Marquardt and Marshall were granted bail pending their new appeal based on fresh evidence.

The police play a critical role in almost all wrongful convictions. In the Donald Marshall Jr. case discussed above, the police virtually framed Donald Marshall, using oppressive tactics against young and unstable witnesses until they were prepared to perjure themselves and falsely testify that they saw Marshall stab Seale. The local police also persisted in their belief that Marshall had to be guilty even after a companion of the real killer came forth shortly after Marshall’s 1971 conviction and told them that Marshall was innocent. Police influence and participate in witness error in two ways: by failing to detect it when a witness first offers it, or by deliberately forcing or encouraging a witness to change his or her testimony. Police failure to detect witness error is often a product of tunnel vision: if the misleading evidence fits police theory or biases, it may not be rigorously examined. All the articles that were found during the preliminary research; none of them had any response from the police in them. Something that was noticeably missing is that there was nothing mentioned about the police apology.

  1. Mike Larsen says:

    This is a great first post on this topic.

    You note that there have been several major inquiries into wrongful convictions in Canada, and that these inquiries have highlighted the role of the police in producing this sort of outcome. These inquiries have also made numerous recommendations for reform, with the goal of changing those characteristics of police practices that give rise to wrongful convictions. Perhaps your next post could discuss what some of these recommendations have been, and whether and to what extent they have been implemented.

    Also, consider Maurice Punch’s approach to the study of police deviance. Punch makes the observation that “there are no individuals in organizations” his starting point, and thereby seeks to move beyond the individual ‘rotten apple’ dimension and address the organizational and cultural roots of police deviance. How does the ‘rotten apple’ / ‘rotten orchard’ debate factor into a discussion of the role of the police in wrongful convictions in Canada?

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