British Columbia

Family of murdered toddler 'hurting endlessly' as man convicted in 1983 killing appeals

Phillip Tallio is appealing his conviction for the murder of 22-month-old Delavina Mack in Bella Coola.

Phillip Tallio has maintained his innocence since he was sent to prison for death of Delavina Mack

Rhoda Desjarlais holds a picture of her cousin, Delavina Mack, who was 22 months old when she was murdered in 1983. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Rhoda Desjarlais was just a year old when her cousin Delavina Mack was murdered at a party in Bella Coola in 1983.

The consequences of what happened that night have followed Desjarlais for her entire life.

"It's been a ripple effect on our family. Our children are kept close to us. My children, my grandchildren are kept close. There's a loss of trust. My kids have maybe had one or two sitters in their whole life, because we don't trust anybody," Desjarlais told CBC outside the B.C. Court of Appeal on Thursday.

She spoke as lawyers for Phillip Tallio, the man who pleaded guilty to killing 22-month-old Mack, argued for his release on bail while he appeals his murder conviction.

It was the first time Mack's family have spoken publicly about Tallio's bid for exoneration. Despite his guilty plea, he's maintained his innocence throughout his time in prison.

Outside the court, Desjarlais read a statement on behalf of Mack's family, including the toddler's mother, Marion Bolton.

"People need to understand that Delavina was an innocent toddler, and that she came from a very loving family. We do not understand why the story has changed after admitting the crime," Desjarlais said.

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)

She spoke about an aunt who had to dress little Mack for her funeral and still has flashbacks of the damage caused by the autopsy. She recalled how Mack's grandmother was threatened with removal from the courtroom because she couldn't stop crying out in pain during Tallio's trial in Bella Coola.

"We are hurting endlessly by what is going on with this court hearing. We are the voice for Delavina. She cannot stand up for herself," Desjarlais said.

Tallio claims guilty plea was involuntary

Mack's family remembers her as a friendly little girl who loved her aunties and uncles. A family photo taken not long before her death shows her smiling in a yellow dress with white lace trim.

Tallio was her cousin, and he was 17 when Mack died from suffocation during a sexual assault.

He originally pleaded not guilty to the murder, but his lawyers changed the plea to guilty nine days in. Tallio alleges the guilty plea was involuntary.

The UBC Innocence Project, a non-profit dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted people, took up Tallio's case a few years back.

He won the right to appeal his conviction in 2017, nearly 34 years after the filing deadline had passed.

If his conviction is overturned, it would go down in Canadian history books as the longest prison sentence served by someone later found to be wrongly convicted.

Phillip James Tallio was 17 when he was convicted of second-degree murder. (Rachel Barsky)

Partial DNA analysis suggests the killer could have been any male relation of Tallio. His lawyers have suggested that a second relative of Mack, now dead, might be the real killer.

Last year, the appeal court ordered the release of a sealed DNA sample from the investigation for further testing. Tissues taken from Mack's body have been stored at B.C. Children's Hospital for decades.

'I'd be worried about my children'

At Thursday's hearing, Tallio's lawyers argued for him to be released to transitional supportive housing while his appeal is underway. He is currently living in a minimum security prison and is allowed escorted trips into the community.

Tallio hasn't applied for parole in more than a decade and an application for day parole that was set to be heard this summer was withdrawn while the matter of bail is being decided.

The court heard from Tallio's parole officer, who said she has no concerns about his behaviour or the security of the public if he is released.

Crown counsel asked the judge for Tallio's bail application to be adjourned so that he can go through the process of applying for parole instead.

Prosecutor Mary Ainslie argued that if Tallio is released, it should be on the condition that he not be allowed in the presence of any children except for his grandchildren, and only then with the permission of a legal guardian.

Mack's family, meanwhile, would like for Tallio to be barred from interactions with any children, including his own relations.

"I'd be worried about my children. That's my biggest concern," Desjarlais said.

On Friday, B.C. Court of Appeal Justice Elizabeth Bennett denied Tallio's bail request. She said he can reapply but would need more community support and supervision.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay has more than a decade of experience in B.C. journalism, with a focus on the courts, health and social justice issues. She has also reported on human rights and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

With files from Eric Rankin