Ostrowski freed on bail after 23 years

Frank Ostrowski, a Winnipeg man who has spent 23 years in jail for a murder he says he didn't commit, will be going home for Christmas after being released on bail.

Frank Ostrowski, a Winnipeg man who has spent 23 years in jail for a murder he says he didn't commit, will be going home for Christmas after being released on bail.

Ostrowski's conviction is under review by the federal Justice Department as a possible wrongful conviction. Ostrowski maintains he had no involvement in the death.

The 60-year-old grandfather was released Friday from Rockwood Institution, a minimum-security prison north of the city that has been his residence since 1987.

Speaking on the steps of the Queen's Bench courthouse, Ostrowski told reporters he was happy that his nightmare is almost over.

"[I was] put in jail for something I didn't do, called a murderer when I'm not. It's very hard," he said. "I was hoping that the truth would come up. Now my lawyers have proven that the justice system failed me.

"And now I'm going to have a Christmas with my family."

'I was hoping that the truth would come up. Now my lawyers have proven that the justice system failed me.'—Frank Ostrowski

Ostrowski said he passed the time in prison by putting his energy and focus into his leathercraft hobby.

"I made the belts … I sold them to companies on the streets and the bars disappeared because of that," he said. "And it kept me sane."

A hairstylist who became a cocaine dealer, Ostrowski has been serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.

He was convicted of ordering the 1986 killing of informant Robert Nieman, a fellow drug dealer, in Winnipeg. The Crown said Nieman was killed out of fear he was set to tell police about Ostrowski's cocaine operation.

The conviction was made by a jury largely on the testimony of a man who was facing charges of possessing cocaine.

Charges against that man, Matthew Lovelace, were stayed after Ostrowski was convicted, but Ostrowski's lawyers and the jury members were never told about that secret deal.

Relief for family, supporters

Friday's decision from Queen's Bench Justice Colleen Suche comes with the condition that Ostrowski pay $5,000 for the bail, reside with his daughter, obey a strict curfew except in a medical emergency and have no weapons. He is also ordered to pay two sureties of $25,000 each.

The decision was met with smiles and relief from Ostrowski's family and supporters.

Suche said the arrangement with Lovelace played a great significance in her decision.

"Keeping such evidence from the jury may well have affected … may well have had impact on the fairness of the trial," she said. 

That deal with Lovelace allowed him to say things that were known only to the prosecution to not be true, James Lockyer, Ostrowski's lawyer, told Suche during the bail hearing last month. The jury was "totally misled" as a result, he said.

Crown attorney Rick Saull has said it was common practice at the time of Ostrowski's trial to not hand over every police document to the defence. He also said Ostrowski's lawyer at the time had the opportunity to grill Lovelace about any deals.

He had urged Suche during the bail hearing to keep Ostrowski behind bars until the Justice Department was further along in its review of the case.

Milgaard support for Ostrowski

Joyce Milgaard, a staunch advocate for the wrongfully convicted, was in attendance Friday in support of Ostrowski's family.

Milgaard's son, David, was wrongfully convicted for the 1969 murder and rape of nursing assistant Gail Miller in Saskatoon. He was convicted in 1970 and freed in 1992 after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that he should receive a new trial.

In 1997, DNA evidence proved Milgaard's innocence and the same year, Larry Fisher was arrested for the crime. In 1999, Milgaard and his family received a $10-million compensation package from the federal government.

Facts concealed in other cases

Ostrowski's case bears a striking resemblance to those against James Driskell, Kyle Unger and Thomas Sophonow, Lockyer has said.

Important facts were concealed by the Crown and the accused were later exonerated after spending years in prison.

Driskell was convicted of killing a friend in Winnipeg in 1990, partly on testimony from Ray Zanidean — a witness who, unbeknownst to the defence, was given tens of thousands of dollars in expense payments and immunity on an arson charge for his testimony. Driskell's conviction was quashed in 2005.

Unger was convicted of killing a teenage girl at a rock festival in 1990. His conviction was quashed by the federal justice minister after DNA tests disproved the only physical evidence. Without the defence's knowledge, a jailhouse informant in the case was given special consideration for his help.

Sophonow was found guilty of killing Winnipeg waitress Barbara Stoppel in 1981, largely because of witness testimony that later turned out to be faulty. One witness's statement to police contradicted her testimony in court, but the defence never knew about the police statement and could not challenge the testimony.

Sophonow spent four years in prison before he was freed on appeal.

In all three cases, the Crown's lack of disclosure was criticized in ensuing public inquiries.