Members of the Innocence Project at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School have much to celebrate with the release Monday of Romeo Phillion, someone they believe was wrongly convicted of the murder of Ottawa firefighter Leopold Roy.
“I am extremely proud of the work of our students and their tireless efforts to investigate what appears to be a shocking miscarriage of justice,” said Dianne Martin, right, director of the Innocence Project.
“This demonstrates the vital role played by advocacy groups in a justice system that is clearly not foolproof. The Innocence Project is training our next generation of Osgoode lawyers to be aware of the shortcomings in the system.”
Martin described the Phillion case as having all of the features of a classic wrongful conviction – a terrible crime, a marginal accused and suspect evidence.
The Innocence Project, a clinical program that involves law students in the investigation of cases of suspected wrongful conviction, championed Phillion’s case from the outset. Since March 1998, more than 40 law students in the group have been involved in investigating the 31-year-old conviction of Phillion.
Key evidence surfaced that year indicating that Phillion was not even in Ottawa at the time of the 1967 murder.
The Innocence Project investigation continued for the next few years until enough evidence had been collected and a brief prepared. With the assistance of their mentor, outspoken Toronto lawyer James Lockyer, the group filed an application to federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon in May 2003 for Phillion’s exoneration, prompting the minister to order a review of the case.
Ontario Superior Court Justice David Watt released Phillion, 64, pending a decision from Cauchon, left, on whether Phillion’s 1972 conviction for the murder of Ottawa firefighter Leopold Roy should be overturned.
For more information on the Innocence Project, visit http://www.yorku.ca/dmartin/Innocence/innocenc.htm.
Right: Osgoode Hall Law School
Martin, who joined Osgoode’s faculty in 1989, served as academic director to York’s Intensive Program in Poverty Law. She has also taught in the University of Saskatchewan’s Native Law Programs and the University of Toronto’s Centre of Criminology. She brings to her teaching and writing extensive experience as a criminal law practitioner.
Martin has focused her scholarship on a feminist re-examination of criminal justice issues such as the prosecution of welfare fraud and the preservation of stereotypes, women as casualties of the criminal justice system and police misconduct, including gender bias in policing. Her work on re-examination of criminal justice issues, including penal abolition, has been presented at national and international conferences.
Background to the Phillion case
The road to jail for Phillion began in August 1967, when he led the life of a drifter.
When Leopold Roy was found stabbed to death in the stairwell of his apartment building, Phillion was picked up and interrogated by the police. All might have been well for the suspect after one detective eliminated him from his enquiry, saying Phillion was at a gas station in Trenton, Ontario, when the murder occurred.
This was a key report – but it remained hidden for 30 years.
By 1971, the murder was still unsolved. Meanwhile Phillion, then living off the avails of prostitution and carrying a string of convictions for theft and assault, was taken into custody in Ottawa for holding up a taxi driver at gunpoint.
During questioning and out of concern for his gay lover, who was also in custody, Phillion confessed to the murder of Roy. Even though he retracted the confession right away, it wasn’t enough to get the police off his back. Instead, he was handed a life sentence in prison following a trial in 1972. There he remained until July 21, 2003, refusing to apply for parole because he would have had to admit to admit guilt in the affair.
Television news this week showed him catching up with three decades of change — he was fascinated, for instance, that you could put a card in a machine and get money out of it.