Winnipeg man wins fight to overturn 30-year-old murder conviction

After over 30 years, Frank Ostrowski has won his fight to reverse his conviction for first-degree murder.

Frank Ostrowski served 23 years in prison after being found guilty in 1986 slaying

The Court of Appeal of Manitoba released its decision on Frank Ostrowski's 1987 murder conviction on Tuesday, which recommends his conviction be set aside. (CBC)

After more than 30 years, Frank Ostrowski has won his fight to reverse his conviction for first-degree murder.

On Tuesday, the Manitoba Court of Appeal released its decision on Ostrowski's case, saying the conviction should be set aside.

The decision goes on to say that given the amount of time that has passed, and the years Ostrowski has already spent behind bars, no new trial should be called at this time. The decision instead calls for a judicial stay of proceedings.

Ostrowski has always maintained his innocence in the 1986 killing of Robert Nieman.

At the time, Ostrowski was accused of ordering the murder of Nieman, a drug dealer, and was convicted largely due to the testimony of a key witness who had separate charges of cocaine possession stayed.

In 2009, Ostrowski was released on bail after 23 years behind bars, after the federal Justice Department began reviewing Ostrowski's case as a possible wrongful conviction.

In 2014, then-Minister of Justice Peter MacKay determined there was "a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred" in Ostrowski's conviction.

Defence wanted acquittal

Lawyers for the Crown and the defence had previously told Manitoba Court of Appeal that they both agreed Ostrowski's conviction cannot stand.

The Crown had asked for a judicial stay of proceedings, which would close the case, while Ostrowski's defence teams wanted the court to formally acquit Ostrowski.

The appeal court sided with the Crown, quashing Ostrowski's conviction, but said it would not go so far as to fully acquit him. 

At the crux of Ostrowski's appeal was whether key evidence was disclosed to Ostrowski's defence. That included a deal the Crown had struck with its key witness to stay his drug charges if he testified against Ostrowski, and testimony from an officer that contradicted the witness's testimony.

In its decision, the appeal court found that the Crown's failure to disclose this evidence impaired Ostrowski's defence, because his lawyer could have used it to challenge the credibility of important details in the case against him.

However, the decision goes on to say that this does not render the witness's testimony totally unreliable, and that a jury could still reasonably find Ostrowski guilty if a new trial were ordered.

Ostrowski's lawyer, James Lockyer, said Tuesday's ruling was a relief because Ostrowski is no longer in custody or on bail for the first time in three decades.

But, Lockyer said, no one is paying any price for the prosecution of his client.

"I think above all, it's that there's no accountability in this case," Lockyer said. "The man spent 32 years under a first-degree murder claim, and no one's accountable for that 32 years except him."

With files from The Canadian Press