Glen Assoun lawyers have long history with wrongful convictions
Association in the Defence of the Wrongly Convicted has helped exonerate more than 20 Canadians
In some of his first public comments as he tasted freedom following more than 16 years behind bars for a murder he says he didn't commit, Glen Assoun offered praise.
"I'd like to thank my lawyers," he said Monday, after emerging from a courthouse elevator in Halifax. "Sean MacDonald, he worked on my case for years, eight years. And he worked diligently hard to bring me to this glorious moment."
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Assoun was granted bail on Monday as a special group within the federal Department of Justice probes whether he was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder in the 1995 death of his ex-girlfriend Brenda Way.
The woman's body was found near a Dartmouth apartment building. Her throat was slashed and she was badly beaten.
Assoun, 59, is represented by lawyers from the Association in the Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted or AIDWIC, a non-profit organization founded in 1993 that has helped exonerate nearly two dozen Canadians imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.
The group is well-known for its successful track record of representing the wrongfully convicted, including David Milgaard, Steven Truscott, Guy Paul Morin and Clayton Johnson, the Shelburne, N.S., man found guilty of killing his wife in 1989.
The group's latest success came Tuesday when Justice Minister Peter MacKay referred the 1987 murder conviction of Frank Ostrowski to the Manitoba Court of Appeal after an investigation revealed new evidence pointing to a likely miscarriage of justice.
Threshold is factual innocence
AIDWIC receives plenty of requests for help from inmates across the country who have exhausted all appeals but claim they are innocent. However, with limited resources — lawyers are not paid and donations cover expenses — only a few cases are ever taken on by the group.
Lawyer Sean MacDonald has worked on Assoun's case for eight years, speaking to the incarcerated man almost every day by telephone.
"I can tell you that in close to eight years he's never held anything back and never said anything other than, 'I'm innocent,'" MacDonald said in an interview.
AIDWIC has a rigorous vetting process and it can be years before they decide to represent someone. Not only are trial and appeal records reviewed, AIDWIC hires private investigators to revisit the case and unearth new evidence.
All this is then brought to the board of directors at AIDWIC in Toronto. They discuss the details and decide if the association should take on the case.
"The threshold is whether, as an organization, we believe that the applicant is factually innocent," MacDonald said.
But there's another important component, said AIDWIC lawyer Philip Campbell. There must be compelling new evidence that can push the case forward.
"Sometimes we turn down applicants very regretfully," he said. "We just say, 'I'm sorry, we sympathize, we can see why you could easily be a victim of a miscarriage of justice. But we don't have any raw material to work with.'"
New evidence is important because it's a key trigger for the next stage: an application to the Criminal Conviction Review Group, a unit of the federal Department of Justice. Applications are rare — last year there were 13.
The Justice Department said applications under Section 696.1 of the Criminal Code "should ordinarily be based on new matters of significance that either were not considered by the courts or occurred or arose after the conventional avenues of appeal had been exhausted."
In Assoun's case, lawyers submitted boxes of evidence for consideration. The details remain secret as all new evidence is currently sealed and banned from publication.
But the review group's preliminary findings in the Assoun case concluded there is a possible miscarriage of justice in the case and a full investigation has been launched.
The case will ultimately be reviewed by the minister of justice, who has a handful of avenues: dismiss it, order a new trial, or send it to the court of appeal.