BY MARGARET MANWARING
TORONTO - "If you want to know who this happens to, look in the mirror," explained Kirk Bloodsworth. He was addressing the conference of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) held in Toronto May 5-6.
Bloodsworth was one of several victims of wrongful convictions who spoke at the conference. He was released from prison in 1993, nine years after he was framed for the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl in Maryland. DNA testing of the evidence led to his release.
"It Could Happen to You" was the title of the final session of the conference where Bloodsworth spoke. He was joined on the panel by Guy Paul Morin, Marshall Thompson, David Milgaard and Thomas Sophonow. All of them had done time in Canada's prisons for murders they did not commit, up to 22 years in the case of Milgaard. Joyce Milgaard, David's mother and untiring activist in the campaign for his release, chaired the session.
Their testimony provided a moving conclusion to the conference of about 130 participants which also heard from lawyers, judges, a forensic scientist, representatives of the media and activists involved in defense campaigns.
The Executive Director of AIDWYC, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, also spoke. Carter, who spent 19 years in U.S. prisons for a 1966 murder he did not commit, drew out some lessons about the fight for justice in the United States and elsewhere. "Once you become a suspect, once you become a target of the police, you're in trouble. Forget about innocent until proven guilty," he said.
Several speakers answered those who would argue that the fact these victims of wrongful conviction are free today proves that "the system works." Kirk Makin, author of Redrum the Innocent that documents the case of Guy Paul Morin, explained that his story is rather "a saga of the miscarriage of justice."
Both James McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries, a U.S. organization dedicated to freeing the wrongly convicted, and James Lockyer, one of Morin's lawyers, pointed to the similarities between different cases of unjust conviction. Prosecutorial and police misconduct are common, involving the suppression or manipulation of evidence, the willful use of jailhouse informants, and the wringing of false confessions through grueling and confusing interrogations.
"We should be concerned about those who are sworn to uphold the law and who knowingly send innocent persons to prison. What else is this but a crime? They kidnap an innocent person, there's forceful confinement, torture and in the case of the death penalty, conspiracy to commit murder," Carter said.
One of the powerful indictments of the "justice" system presented at the conference was the case of Donzel Young, a Black youth who did six and a half years in Ontario's prisons for a murder he did not commit. Young was known to his friends as "the peacemaker." Despite ample evidence that Young was not the murderer, he never received proper legal representation before his conviction.
In 1994 AIDWYC decided to take up a public campaign to win Young's freedom. Key eyewitness testimony was unearthed. A documentary about his innocence aired on a prime-time news program. The request for a new trial was filed with the Minister of Justice. In March 1995 Young was murdered in prison trying to protect a fellow inmate from thugs.
Among those participating in the conference were supporters of the campaign to defend Mark Curtis, a unionist and political activist sentenced to 25 years in Iowa on frame-up charges of rape and burglary. John Cox, a member of the steering committee for the defense campaign, reported that many new supporters were won at the conference. Ten copies of the new Pathfinder pamphlet, Why is Mark Curtis Still in Prison? were sold and 20 conference participants signed up to receive more information about Mark's fight for freedom and justice.
"This is outrageous!" said Joyce Milgaard after getting information about the Curtis case. She pledged to write to Curtis in prison and send a letter to the Iowa parole board demanding that he be released.
Cox noted that many people involved in defense campaigns, such as those represented at the conference, are fighters who readily understand the nature of Curtis's frame up. "This conference provided a vivid illustration of the injustice that the so-called criminal justice system metes out every day to working people in the United States and Canada," Cox said.
Demands raised by conference participants included the
need to ban the use of jailhouse informants, the formation
of a public body responsible for inquiries into wrongful
convictions, and provisions for speedy retribution for those
freed from prison.
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