Sophonow case raises concern over prison informants

The exoneration of Thomas Sophonow for a 1981 murder has renewed calls to stop using jailhouse informants.

"As far as I'm concerned they should never come out of their holes. They shouldn't be used," says Paul Bennett, Sophonow's lawyer.

Sophonow's murder conviction was bolstered by Douglas Martin, an informant who claimed he heard Sophonow confess to the murder of 16-year-old Barbara Stoppel in Winnipeg.

In 1985, the Manitoba Court of Appeal said Martin's evidence should not have been allowed and acquitted Sophonow.

But it wasn't until Thursday that Winnipeg police apologized and cleared Sophonow of the murder. Sophonow had endured three criminal trials and four years in jail.

Police say new evidence now points to a new suspect, so it looks like Martin may have lied. If that's the case, it wouldn't be the first time. Among Martin's 109 convictions, is one for perjury. 

Martin earned the nickname "Father Confession" in jail. He claims nine people told him of murders they committed, including Shannon Murrin.

Murrin was later acquitted of killing a Kelowna girl.

"None of the ones that I've been involved in were innocent. I know that. There's only one that's maybe doubtful (but) even Sophonow I still believe that he did that," an unapologetic Martin said in an interview with CBC Radio.

Manitoba Justice Minister Gord MacIntosh says an inquiry into Sophonow's case will scrutinize the use of informants.

Two years ago, former Quebec Justice Minister Fred Kaufman made strong recommendations against prison informants, after probing the wrongful murder conviction of Guy Paul Morin.

Despite this, only Alberta and Ontario have taken any action in limiting the use of informants.

Sophonow knows he won't be the last wrongful conviction in Canada. "There will always be somebody else," he says.

His lawyer says there must be a total ban on informants to avoid cases like Morin, Murrin and Sophonow. 

"Any prosecution anywhere in this country that requires a jailhouse informant to come out and trade on somebody else's soul is not the kind of witness I'd like to have and I'd say it's a suspect prosecution," says Bennett. "Prove your case without them."