Crown prosecutors have withdrawn a murder charge against Romeo Phillion, who spent nearly 32 years behind bars for the 1967 stabbing death of an Ottawa firefighter, saying Thursday there was no longer any reasonable prospect of conviction.
Phillion was convicted in the death of Leopold Roy in 1972. Last year, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial.
The Appeals Court judge said previously unheard evidence, in particular information about Phillion's alibi at the time of the crime, "could have left the jury in a state of reasonable doubt about the appellant's guilt."
Phillion, who turned 71 on Thursday, has been free on bail pending the appeal since 2003 and has been living in Toronto. He has pushed for the court to close his case for good.
Outside the Ottawa courtroom, Phillion said the presiding judge, in a statement following the Crown's withdrawal of charges, gave him a good birthday present.
"I got an apology from the judge, which was a gift today, I was not expecting that," he said.
"I'm 71 years old today, but I feel like I'm 21."
Evidence withheld, appeals court had ruled
Prosecutors based their original case in part on a confession Phillion quickly recanted.
But during his appeal, his lawyers produced evidence that police and prosecutors deliberately withheld from his lawyer at his 1972 trial — including a police report that confirmed Phillion was stuck at a service station 200 kilometres from Ottawa, in Trenton, Ont., when the crime took place.
The trial occurred a decade before the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the development of the subsequent case law that now forbids prosecutors from hiding exculpatory evidence.
The Crown, in withdrawing the charges, said in a statement a new case could not be tried on its merits, as too much time had passed and some key witnesses were now deceased.
"The Crown has carefully and thoroughly assessed this case in accordance with its duty and has determined that, for the reasons stated, there is no longer any reasonable prospect of conviction," the Crown said. "In all the circumstances, the Crown would ask that the charge be marked withdrawn."