Canada’s justice system has long been failing those wrongfully convicted, according to David Milgaard and Peter Edwards at a conference hosted by Innocence McGill on Tuesday.
Imprisoned for 23 years on false charges of rape and murder and exonerated by DNA evidence in 1997, Milgaard described his ordeal and spoke on the pressing need for justice reform in Canada.
Describing Milgaard’s case, Edwards, a longtime journalist specializing in organized crime and justice issues, noted the unusual nature of Milgaard’s exoneration in an oft-inefficient and corrupt criminal justice system.
“As great and inspiring as David’s story is, it’s not a triumph of the system. It’s a triumph despite the system,” he said. “We can’t pretend that the system did anything right in this case whatsoever.”
“The Canadian Justice department is failing, and it is failing miserably,” Milgaard said.
Drawing from his own experience, he described systemic bias against those who maintain their innocence, and who are often denied parole for refusing to admit guilt.
He spoke on the need for an independent review board to investigate potential miscarriages of justice in Canada and to help protect and exonerate the wrongfully convicted.
He also suggested that the Canadian government implement other, non-punitive justice models, like restorative justice.
Restorative justice emphasizes active dialogue between victims and offenders and encourages offenders to take responsibility for their actions.
Julia O’Byrne, of Innocence McGill – an organization dedicated to investigating wrongful conviction claims in Quebec – pointed out systemic problems like prosecutorial power and the widespread use of plea bargains, which can incentivize false confessions from innocent people afraid of harsher sentences imposed by a jury.
“Nobody can ever see what kind of negotiations the Crown is offering, what the plea negotiations are like, yet they wield so much power…. They’re not held accountable,” she told The Daily.
Edwards also spoke about the plight of First Nations peoples within the criminal justice system, who often give false confessions, believing the system will work against them.
Rilla Banks, also of Innocence McGill, noted a disparity between statist understandings of justice and those of First Nations peoples.
“Within Aboriginal communities, many of them have different modes of dealing with people that commit crimes in their community. It’s much less adversarial than the [federal] system,” she told The Daily. “I think that if you’re not informed about the system, and you don’t feel that you’re part of it, you wouldn’t want to cooperate with it.”