National

Innocence Ottawa aims to overturn wrongful convictions in the Ottawa Region. Photo: CC, via Flickr.

Annual General Meeting to focus on Canada’s last executions under death penalty

Innocence Ottawa will be hosting their annual general meeting (AGM) on April 3, featuring talks on Canada’s historical death penalty and wrongful conviction within Canada’s legal system.

The organization provides legal assistance to inmates who they believe have been wrongly convicted.

“Our objective is to help the wrongly convicted who are seeking exoneration. So we get 10 or 20 letters a year from different people asking us for help,” explained Katheryn Campbell, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa and coordinator for Innocence Ottawa.

“But we have to follow very strict legal criteria for conviction review — there  has to be fresh evidence.”

The AGM will feature experts on these wrongful convictions. Including a talk on the case of Wilbert Coffin — a man executed by the Canadian government in 1956. Coffin’s assumed mistrial caused a surge of support for Canada’s anti-death penalty movement.  

Although erroneous convictions carry serious consequences, Campbell said that there’s no measure of how often it happens in Canada.

“There’s a figure that people throw around, particularly in the U.S. They say it’s 0.5 to 1 per cent of all criminal convictions are an error,” explained Campbell. “So if you extrapolate that to our country, it’s about 800 cases a year, but it’s an impossible thing to measure.”

Innocence Ottawa works with criminology and law students at the U of O to launch their investigations, which Campbell said gives students a chance to work within the legal system while tackling systemic social justice issues.

“The reason I joined is that I’ve always had an interest in wrongful convictions. I took classes with Katheryn in the past and I enjoyed learning about it,” said Kathleen Ireson, a criminology master’s student. “It’s great to get hands-on experience working with the criminal justice system.”

Canada’s legal system makes overturning convictions a complicated process. Innocence Ottawa’s cases often continue for years as they search for enough new evidence to justify an appeal.

“It’s very hard to overturn the convictions. Really, really hard. Because once people have made up their minds about you, then they don’t really want to look at you—nobody wants to admit a mistake,”said Campbell.

“I have to give the students 100 per cent credit because they work really hard and it’s with often very little reward at the end of the day. The system is stacked against the defendant,  absolutely.”

Innocence Ottawa’s AGM will be hosted at the Faculty of Social Sciences building on April 3. Visit their Facebook page for more information.