British Columbia

Family of murdered toddler say they've been forgotten in killer's historic appeal

The family of a little girl who was sexually assaulted and killed in the tiny B.C. community of Bella Coola nearly 40 years ago says they have been retraumatized this week by the spectacle of seeing the man who admitted to her murder in 1983 trying to take back his words in 2020.

Phillip Tallio's lawyer claims his client knew what was happening when he pleaded guilty to murder

Delavina Mack's family says it's been traumatized by watching Phillip Tallio deny responsibility for killing the 22-month old in 1983. Tallio is trying to withdraw his guilty plea. (Submitted by Rhoda Desjarlais)

The family of a little girl who was sexually assaulted and killed in the tiny B.C. community of Bella Coola nearly 40 years ago say they have been retraumatized this week by the spectacle of seeing the man who admitted to her murder in 1983 trying to take back his words in 2020.

Delavina Mack's relatives watched as Phillip Tallio appeared before B.C.'s Court of Appeal for the first week of his historic bid to withdraw a plea to second-degree murder. 

Close family sat in the same courtroom where Tallio denied having killed the 22-month-old victim and more relatives packed into an overflow room to watch him testify on a closed-circuit broadcast of the proceedings.

On the first day, they asked to be left alone. 

But by day four — Friday — they had had enough.

"He gets to sit and lie to the court like he didn't understand the system," Mack's cousin Rhoda Desjarlais wrote in a statement sent to the CBC.

"Since all this started with the media taking pictures and doing reports, our family has [had] to sit back and be reminded of what he did to our beautiful angel. People seem to forget that our family is suffering with all the pain he brought us."

'He understood what we were talking about'

Tallio claims he was railroaded into pleading guilty to a crime he didn't commit as a result of police "tunnel vision" and the ineptitude of his legal counsel at the time. 

He testified that he didn't understand anything his lawyer told him and that he didn't realize that accepting a plea deal to second-degree murder meant he was admitting to sexually assaulting and suffocating Mack, his cousin, whose lifeless body Tallio found on April 23, 1983.

But over the course of two days of testimony which wrapped up Friday, Tallio's original trial lawyer, Phillip Rankin, told the appeal court judges the then-17-year-old knew exactly what was happening because it was explained to him in very blunt terms.

Rhoda Desjarlais says her family is troubled by Phillip Tallio's appeal of his conviction for the 1983 murder of Delavina Mack. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

And the choice to plead guilty was Tallio's to make.

"You can't read other people's minds, what they understand or don't understand, but you get an impression," Rankin said. 

"And the impression I had was that he understood what we were talking about."

'That just did not happen'

Tallio's current lawyers claim new evidence suggests police overlooked a pair of alternate suspects: Tallio's uncle Cyril, and Delavina Mack's great-grandfather Wilfred, who were both known to have sexually assaulted young girls.

Rankin's testimony conjured up a preliminary hearing that happened 37 years ago in the same small coastal town where the murder occurred. The proceeding was packed and the crime was the talk of the community.

Two of the most troubling pieces of evidence were an unrecorded confession to RCMP officer Cpl. Garry Mydlak — signed by Tallio — and a statement to a forensic psychiatrist that seemed to confirm Tallio's guilt.

Phillip Tallio listens as a Crown prosecutor asks him questions at an appeal court hearing where he is applying to withdraw a guilty plea to second-degree murder. (Jane Wolsak/CBC)

Rankin fought to have the police officer's statement excluded at trial but saw the statement to the psychiatrist as a problem.

Tallio has since denied giving both statements and even meeting the psychiatrist. But Rankin said that wasn't the case at the time.

He said they discussed the statement to the psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Pos, in which Tallio allegedly said the charge against him shouldn't be first-degree murder because "I didn't mean to put a pillow on her head. I didn't mean to kill her."

Rankin said he thought the psychiatrist "tricked" Tallio. 

"There was no denial of meeting those people," the lawyer said. 

"Not that I asked him 'Are you guilty?' every day, but there was no protest of innocence to me because we already had an understanding … when he admitted to me that what he told Mydlak was true. He didn't persist in telling me 'he's innocent, he's innocent.' That just did not happen."

'They're just people that I have to defend'

Rankin also disputed Tallio's claim that he didn't pay attention to any of the legal proceedings and the assertion that he didn't have a mental capacity beyond that of a 12-year-old. 

The lawyer said Tallio was an avid reader who also wrote poems.

And he said Tallio sat along with everyone else in the packed courtroom listening to testimony from a police officer who was so moved by the horror of the crime and thoughts of his own young child that he broke down in tears.

Phillip Tallio is seen in a recent photograph taken by his brother while he is living under bail conditions. Tallio is asking to withdraw a guilty plea he made in 1983 to second-degree murder. (Submitted by Rachel Barsky)

"I can remember the effect it had on the whole town, seeing their police officer crying on the stand," Rankin said. "This was pretty tough stuff and it made an immediate effect on everybody and I don't think it was lost on Mr. Tallio."

In its statement, Delavina Mack's family says it's still not free of that hurt.

"Living with the pain of losing Delavina to an ugly murder has broken our hearts into a million pieces," Desjarlais wrote."Our family hurts every day since this happened, and now here we are again, reliving the trauma."

Rankin said he defended Tallio like he would any other client — to the best of his ability.

"And if a person's done a horrible thing and walks because of me, then I've done my job," he told the appeal court.

"I've had the same thing when people ask me about acting for rapists and I've had the same  thing when people ask about acting for neo-Nazis. I don't associate myself with the people I'm defending. They're not my friends. They're not my colleagues. They're not people that I have to like. They're just people that I have to defend." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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