Retired prosecutor George Dangerfield behind 4 high-profile quashed murder convictions in Manitoba
'I don't know his motivation,' says defence lawyer who faced Crown attorney George Dangerfield in court
The storied Manitoba prosecutor behind the recently set aside murder conviction of Frank Ostrowski was also responsible for three other murder convictions which were eventually overturned.
The Manitoba Court of Appeal stated on Nov. 27 that the 1987 conviction against Frank Ostrowski should be set aside — the fourth murder conviction George Dangerfield's name is directly linked to that has been reversed in the province.
In addition to Ostrowski, Dangerfield was responsible for putting Thomas Sophonow, James Driskell, and Kyle Unger behind bars.
In each of those cases, within a decade, the convictions began to unravel with revelations of the Crown withholding of crucial evidence, bargains and deals with jailhouse informants, questionable testimony and coerced confessions.
"I thought he was a friend of mine. What can I say?" veteran Winnipeg defence lawyer Greg Brodsky said of Dangerfield in May 2018, when Crown lawyers first conceded that Ostrowski's conviction could not stand.
"I don't know his motivation for not turning over the material or correcting witnesses."
'Obligation is on everybody'
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a landmark 1991 decision that the Crown must provide the defence with all relevant evidence, even if it hurts their case.
Brodsky said he once held Dangerfield in high esteem and faced off against him in the murder trials against Driskell and Sophonow.
Dangerfield, 84, reportedly now lives in Vancouver. During his appearance at the Manitoba Court of Appeal last year, he said he suffered a stroke three years ago and suffers from aphasia, a language impairment.
Back in May, Brodsky said he didn't believe all the blame should be cast on Dangerfield.
"The obligation is on everybody in the department to make discourse," he said.
Convicted for ordering the killing of drug dealer Robert Nieman in 1986, Ostrowski, a former hair stylist turned drug dealer, always maintained his innocence.
In 2009, the federal Justice Department began reviewing Ostrowski's case as a possible wrongful conviction and he was released on bail after 23 years in jail. His freedom, however, was limited and he lived under a number of conditions.
During a hearing that year, Ostrowski's lawyers argued a key witness at the original trial was given a sweetheart deal that shaped his testimony against their client.
Matthew Lovelace was facing separate charges of cocaine possession when he testified. The Crown stayed the charges against Lovelace a few months after Ostrowski's conviction.
It was a deal Ostrowski's lawyers were not informed about.
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. And in February 2017, the Court of Appeal began reviewing 30-year-old conviction.
The Nov. 27 decision removes all of the conditions first put on Ostrowski's freedom in 2009.
It calls for a judicial stay of proceedings but stops short of acquitting him.
At the crux of Ostrowski's appeal was the deal with Lovelance and a report from an officer that contradicted his testimony.
The report said Winnipeg police received a suggestion a "hit" had been ordered but the officer wrote that it wasn't against Nieman, the man Ostrowski was convicted of killing. That evidence was exposed in hearings held in late 2016 and early 2017 at the Manitoba Court of Appeal.
The appeal court found 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.
The report suggests, though, that given the amount of time that has passed and the years Ostrowski spent behind bars, no new trial should be called at this time.
After three trials, two appeals and almost four years in jail, Thomas Sophonow was exonerated in 2000 of the 1981 murder of Barbara Stoppel.
He was convicted of brutally strangling the 16-year-old waitress at the Winnipeg doughnut shop where she worked.
The conviction was based in part on a confession Sophonow allegedly gave to a man in jail.
The Crown, however, never revealed that the jailhouse informant bargained for charges against him to be dropped.
Dangerfield defended his use of the jail informant, Thomas Cheng, in the inquiry, even though he knew his witness couldn't be trusted.
The Crown stayed Cheng's deportation charges in exchange for his testimony. The jury was never told that Cheng admitted in a polygraph test that his main reason for testifying was to have his charges stayed.
"The ends justified the means, basically," Sophonow told CBC's The Fifth Estate in a 2010 interview. "Whatever has to be done, a conviction will prevail."
The only physical evidence linking Kyle Unger to the 1990 killing of a teenage girl at a rural Manitoba music festival was a strand of hair.
Years after his 1992 conviction, DNA testing found the hair wasn't his.
The Crown once again relied on an in-custody informer who claimed that Unger returned to his cell and confessed to the slaying of 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier, but the defence proved that Unger was not present at the time.
The most damning evidence against Unger was a confession obtained by an undercover police operation, promising him a role in a gang if he confessed to his role in a crime.
At the time of his acquittal, Unger said he admitted to slaying Brigitte Grenier because he was "young, naive and desperate for money."
Unger, however, got several facts wrong in his "confession." He mentioned, for example, a bridge at the concert site that was actually built several months after the teenager's death.
In 2009, the federal justice minister ordered a new trial for Unger, but the Manitoba Crown ultimately decided that it did not have enough evidence for a retrial. In October 2009, Unger was acquitted.
James Driskell was convicted of the murder of Perry Dean Harder in Winnipeg in 1990, based in part on testimony from a witness who was paid tens of thousands of dollars in expense payments and negotiated a secret immunity deal on an arson charge in exchange for his participation.
Driskell's conviction was quashed in 2005, after he had spent 12 years in prison.
At a 2006 inquiry into Driskell's wrongful conviction, Dangerfield testified that he knew some of the testimony from his key witness, Ray Zanidean, was false.
When asked why he didn't correct his witness's sworn testimony, Dangerfield replied that he didn't know.
"You had a duty to get to the bottom of this and find out the true facts and you didn't do it, isn't that correct?" counsel for the commission of inquiry Michael Code asked Dangerfield.
"I don't know what prompted me to leave that matter untouched," Dangerfield said, sighing.
The inquiry's final report, released in February 2007, said the jury in Driskell's trial was "seriously misled" on issues including the reliability of a key Crown witness.
The report also said the failure of the Crown to disclose information to the defence was "careless indifference."
- An earlier version of this story said the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2001 that the Crown must provide the defence with all relevant evidence, even if it hurts their case. In fact, that decision was delivered in 1991.Apr 13, 2021 9:19 AM CT
With files from Ian Froese, Sean Kavanagh, The Fifth Estate and The Canadian Press