Book Review: A Thin Blue Line

Buried in the files of Ontario District Court is R v. Anguei Pal-Deng, an unsettling case. The accused, a Sudanese Black man, 25, already on probation for common assault, was charged with savagely pushing an 82-year old grandmother down a flight of stairs at Toronto’s Dufferin Mall on March 6, 2014. Two eyewitnesses saw everything: the vicious attack, the bleeding victim, the thin blue line of criminal justice that separates civilized society from urban mayhem. “He grabbed my arm and threw me down the stairs,” the woman said. Pal-Deng spent 7 months in jail awaiting trial.

His case was assigned to Judge Melvyn Green, former co-president of the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted. Judge Green took an unusual interest in the case; he pulled mall security tapes and examined them frame by frame. “I feel compelled to note that absent the closed-circuit television evidence, the result may have been tragically different,” he wrote.

Video showed Pal-Deng minding his business, drinking a Coke, when the elderly woman approached the stairs, struggling with her cane, purse and shopping bag. Pal-Deng gently reached out to offer assistance when she “physically recoiled”, then tumbled downstairs. He rushed forward and knelt to comfort the woman.

Neither eyewitness saw anything; one was on an escalator several feet away, facing in the opposite direction. “It is of profound concern that justice could so easily have miscarried but for the good fortune that the very physical exchange at issue was preserved on videotape,” wrote Judge Green. He acquitted the defendant and apologized. “I regret I do not have the authority to do more,” said Green.

Miscarriages Of Justice In Canada examines phenomena that occur over and over in criminal courts: unreliable witnesses, sloppy police work, indifferent prosecutors. Not every defendant has the good fortune of appearing before a Judge Green. “It is a highly imperfect system,” writes author Prof. Kathryn Campbell of the University of Ottawa’s Department of Criminology.

Campbell’s work is meticulous and jarring. Miscarriages Of Justice counts scores, even hundreds of cases of wrongful conviction annually in Canada typically due to witness misidentification, “problematic police investigation”, failure of Crown prosecutors to disclose evidence, fabricated testimony, unreliable jailhouse informants, Court errors, false confessions, prejudice and poor lawyering.

The actual number of wrongful convictions is not known. Campbell identifies at least 32 cases in which Canadians were compensated after being jailed for crimes they did not commit. One victim, Clayton Johnson of Shelburne, N.S., was paid $2.5 million for spending five years in prison on allegations he’d murdered his wife. Investigators determined Mrs. Johnson fell down the basement stairs while Mr. Johnson was at work.

“Existing laws and evidentiary procedures are presumed to be in place to protect everyone, yet, regardless, errors frequently occur throughout the criminal justice process from investigation, arrest and trial all the way through sentencing,” notes Prof. Campbell.

Miscarriages Of Justice concludes officialdom alone is not to blame. Media representation of lawlessness “exerts enormous pressure on the police to solve these crimes, and to do so expeditiously”, writes Prof. Campbell. “While public pressure to solve a crime immediately does not always result in the wrong person being accused or convicted, police may, in their desire to solve these cases, cut corners in investigative practices.”

Perhaps. It is also true that police, prosecutors, defence lawyers and judges are never fired for participating in wrongful convictions through incompetence, indifference or malice. No party to the Pal-Deng prosecution suffered the loss of a penny’s worth of pensionable earnings let alone seven months in jail.

Miscarriages Of Justice is a darkly compelling book not because it is sensational, but because it is so matter of fact.

By Holly Doan

Miscarriages of Justice in Canada: Causes, Responses, Remedies, by Kathryn M. Campbell; University of Toronto Press; 544 pages; ISBN 9780-80209-4063; $40.76

 

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