Jails may hold many wrongfully convicted, UBC study suggests

IVAN HENRY CASE Jails may hold many wrongfully convicted, UBC study suggests WENDY STUECK January 23, 2009 When the B.C. Court of Appeal agreed this month to reopen the case of convicted rapist Ivan Henry, the decision highlighted the possibility that Mr. Henry had spent 26 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. That is an uncomfortable prospect for the B.C. justice system, which has not experienced a high-profile wrongful conviction such as that of Saskatchewan’s David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison before his murder conviction was overturned. But a University of British Columbia law school project that looks into cases of people who claim they have been wrongfully convicted has found no shortage of cases to investigate. ‘When we started, I was operating on the fear that we may not get any cases,’ said Tamara Levy, director of the UBC Law Innocence Project, which was founded in 2007 and is modelled on similar school-based groups in the United States. The Globe and Mail Common wisdom held that safeguards built into the B.C. system – such as the requirement for the Crown to approve charges – made wrongful convictions less likely. Ms. Levy needn’t have worried. The UBC project, which was not involved in the Henry case, now has 23 cases on its roster, most involving homicide convictions and several looking at convictions that resulted from ‘Mr. Big’ investigations. Such cases typically feature an undercover police operation that coaxes a suspect to confess by, for example, making the suspect believe he or she is talking to another criminal. Investigating convictions is a lengthy process; the group is only now at the point of referring one or two cases to lawyers, who would pick up the ball and, it is hoped, have the cases reopened. To improve continuity, UBC is fine-tuning its program so that cases, once taken on by the group, are placed with mentor lawyers who would hang on to the case and have successive students rotate through as assistants – instead of a new batch of students having to start from scratch each year. ‘Lawyers don’t have the time to take on these kinds of clients,’ Ms. Levy said. ‘So if a student can do a lot of the legwork, they get an excellent learning experience from it. And the lawyer gets some assistance,’ she added.

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