New Brunswick

N.B. court overturns dying man's 1975 murder conviction

The New Brunswick Court of Appeal acquitted Erin Walsh of a 1975 murder on Friday, overturning a conviction that sent him to jail for 10 years.

The New Brunswick Court of Appeal acquitted Erin Walsh of a 1975 murder on Friday, overturning a conviction that sent him to jail for 10 years.

The 59-year-old Kingston, Ont., man, who has maintained his innocence for more than 32 years, wanted his name cleared because he is dying of colon cancer.

Upon hearing the court's decision in Fredericton, a teary Walsh rose from his wheelchair and hugged his wife, calling the acquittal a "tremendous relief."

"It was music to my ears, literally, in every way you can imagine, they were the most wonderful words a man in my situation could ever hear," he told reporters, adding, "I feel just absolutely fantastic, it's the best day of my life."

He also expressed his "heartfelt gratitude" to the three-judge panel, which had the option of overturning the conviction,  having the charge stayed, or ordering a retrial.

One of his lawyers, James Lockyer, said the acquittal is a great ending to a difficult story.

"Erin has spent a lot of time in prison, as did so many of the others [who were wrongfully convicted]," he said.

"He was in less time than David Milgaard and longer than Donald Marshall. They're all tragedies in their own way, but they are also great endings to all the stories. Today was a tremendous ending to Erin's case."

Crown prosecutor Jeff Mockler said the prosecution, which had sought a retrial, respects the court's decision. "We felt we got a fair hearing," he said. "So we're happy with that."  

Walsh was convicted of murdering Melvin (Chi Chi) Peters in August 1975. At the time Walsh, who has a long criminal record, was travelling from Toronto when he arrived in Saint John and joined a group that included Peters for drinks at a beach in the city's south end. When leaving the area, a struggle took place in a car, a shotgun went off and Peters was killed.

New evidence prompted review

At Walsh's trial in 1975, prosecutors presented the case as open and shut, and the jury took only one hour to convict him of second-degree murder and hand him a life sentence. He was granted day parole in 1984 and full parole in 1986, but has been in and out of prison since that time for a string of crimes. He is currently free on compassionate parole after being diagnosed with colon cancer in March 2007.

Earlier appeals to the New Brunswick Court of Appeal were dismissed in July 1982 and November 1982.

Federal Justice Minister Robert Nicholson ordered the conviction be reviewed in light of new evidence in February.

The evidence, obtained by Walsh as part of a 2005 access to information request, included a report of jailhouse conversations that suggested someone else shot Peters. 

The police report from Saint John police Det. Douglas Titus said Titus overheard a jail cell conversation between two people Walsh had been travelling with. David Walton asked Don McMillan why he shot Peters, according to the report, which noted that the men appeared to be drunk. The report was not disclosed to Walsh's lawyers at the time.

The appeal court heard on Friday that the former Crown prosecutor, William McCarroll, later told an investigator working on Walsh's case he didn't disclose the report because he considered the conversation to be "drunken jabbering" the defence wouldn't have used in their case.

However, one of Walsh's current lawyers, James Lockyer, said the document would have been a "cross-examiner's dream."

Other documents that have come to light since Walsh's initial trial are the accounts of a man who sold the gun involved in the shooting to McMillan, and seven railway workers who Walsh had sought help from after the shooting.

Civil suit also filed

Walsh has also filed a civil suit against McCarroll, now a senior judge in Saint John, who was the Crown attorney in the case. The suit names all the chiefs of police in Saint John between 1975 and the present, the province and the attorney general of Canada.

He is seeking $50 million in damages, alleging there was a deliberate attempt to suppress evidence.

Walsh said he was not thinking about the civil suit on Friday, but "it will be pursued vigorously."

If Walsh dies before the end of his civil case, his estate won't be entitled to any compensation.