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Dirty Little Secrets

Posted: Apr 26, 2013 1:15 PM ET Last Updated: Apr 26, 2013 1:15 PM ET

If you want a true test of a person's character, you should look at them when they're down. After all, everyone looks good at the top of their game. But how do they handle themselves when they have to do something really difficult, like admit they're wrong and make amends?

Applying that character test to the Nova Scotia justice system shows some disappointing results.

This week we're learning the story of Gerry Barton.

More than 40 years ago, the justice system was part of an effort to railroad Barton to protect another family's dirty little secret.

That secret was incest.

Rather than admit his eldest son was abusing his siblings and had gotten one of his sisters pregnant, the father bullied the pregnant girl into blaming Barton, an innocent boy in their Digby County neighbourhood.

No one has been able to find records from Barton's court appearance, and there's no evidence of a proper police investigation. He says he was convicted after a one-day court appearance in which he got no legal representation. That resulted in a conviction on Barton's record; a conviction Nova Scotia's Court of Appeal has labelled a miscarriage of justice.

It took nearly 40 years for the girl to admit she lied about Barton's role in her pregnancy. Police DNA tests of her, her son and her brother confirmed the incest and proved that Barton had wrongly wore the label of rapist for all that time.

There's no telling the opportunities he missed out on because of that. Barton wants the system to compensate him for those missed opportunities. But rather than trying to make things right, the system has "lawyered up" and is forcing Barton to go to court - repeatedly - to try to set things right.

This follows a Nova Scotian tradition for treating the wrongfully convicted that we can trace back to Donald Marshall Junior.

I covered the inquiry that investigated the many ways the system failed Marshall. I vividly remember the testimony of the government lawyers responsible for negotiating a compensation package for Marshall. They told the inquiry that they knew Marshall was in a fragile emotional state and they exploited that to get him to accept less compensation than he was entitled to.

I remember thinking that this was not how victims should be treated. I assumed - naively, as it turns out- that the Marshall Inquiry would ensure this would never happen again.

Then, years later, I started researching the case of Cesar Lalo.

While Barton and Marshall were wrongfully convicted, Lalo is entirely guilty. He is Nova Scotia's worst sexual predator; a man who abused so many young boys, not even he can provide an accurate number. Lalo committed his abuse while he held a position of trust and authority in the justice system. He was a probation officer, someone who was supposed to provide guidance and support to young boys. Instead he abused, bullied and threatened them.

Nobody could prove that anyone in the justice system knew what Lalo was up to. But courts have ruled that the province is "vicariously liable" for the damage Lalo caused, because he should have been stopped long before he was. When his victims came looking for compensation, the system "lawyered up" and fought them. When the first of Lalo's victims won a settlement, the court even punished the government for its tactics by increasing the size of the settlement award.

Donald Marshall was convicted of murder in 1971, the year after Gerry Barton was convicted of rape. Marshall served 11 years in prison before being exonerated and then compensated. Barton served much less time in custody -- only a few days -- but the stigma of his wrongful conviction has hung over him for much longer.

This brings be back to the test I posed at the top of this blog: how would you measure the character of a system that does this to its more vulnerable members?

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About the Author

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.

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