MPP demands Ontario compensate ex-soldier for wrongful prosecution
Years of fighting criminal charges has cost decorated Afghan vet more than $160K
One of Canada's highest-decorated former soldiers from the Afghan war is facing a mountain of debt after fighting to clear his name over three criminal charges withdrawn by the Crown earlier this year.
Retired master corporal Collin Fitzgerald has $160,000 in legal bills related to a two-year court odyssey and an additional $40,000 in family court costs from a custody battle involving his daughter.
"It's wrong on so many levels. It's morally wrong, it's just... it's absolutely absurd what they've done," Fitzgerald told CBC News. "Nobody should be treated this way."
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An Ontario MPP says the former soldier, who won the Medal of Military Valour for aiding wounded comrades in a burning vehicle under enemy fire in 2006, is among potentially thousands of people in the province who have been driven to the edge of bankruptcy defending themselves against unfounded prosecutions.
"There needs to be some way to right the wrong of the state," said Randy Hillier, current provincial Progressive Conservative justice critic. He's demanding an overhaul of the relationship between the police and Crown, as well as some form of compensation for the unjustly accused.
"I think this has just been a travesty and abusive process, for an individual to face financial ruin and to have to go to that degree and that length of time," Hillier said in reference to the Fitzgerald case.
Fitzgerald, who suffers from PTSD, has had a tumultuous personal life since leaving the military, including stints in hospital.
Originally from Morrisburg, Ont., Fitzgerald faced three separate sets of charges, including motor vehicle theft, harassment and intimidation of a police officer and breaching bail conditions, in relation to alleged incidents in 2012 and 2014.
Each count was dropped by the Crown earlier this year in separate court proceedings.
The last charge — intimidation of an Ontario Provincial Police officer — was withdrawn in late September, on the condition Fitzgerald agreed to a peace bond.
The charges, in each case, were laid at the behest of the OPP, which — according to Fitzgerald — wanted to run him out of town because they considered him a threat to public safety.
In 2013, he was involved in a five-hour standoff, where he had hoped police would shoot and kill him — an incident that took place at the beginning of a difficult divorce from his spouse. Fitzgerald sought treatment and was in the process of turning his life around when he claims police started harassing him and eventually laid the three sets of charges.
Throughout more than two years of court proceedings, the former soldier, who maintained his innocence, was repeatedly offered plea deals by prosecutors.
He says he refused each attempt and accused the Crown of turning a blind eye to information that exonerated him.
According to the court record, prosecutors discovered that the former soldier's whereabouts did not match the OPP's allegations and witnesses. Despite the holes in the case, the Crown stuck with two charges of breaching bail conditions until last spring, when they were withdrawn.
Hillier says a lot of people in Fitzgerald's position take a deal because they don't have the stomach or the pocketbook for an extended court fight.
Fitzgerald says there were times he wanted to give up, but continued to fight with the help of friends and supporters.
"It's not fair," Fitzgerald told CBC News. "Why should I be in financial disarray for the next 30 years trying to pay back what I owe, that I had to borrow to get my freedom? Why is that fallen on my shoulders?"
High number of cases don't reach trial
Ontario Court of Justice statistics show there were 205,200 cases resolved in 2015.
Of those, 82,400 were wrapped up by way of the charges being stayed or withdrawn before trial and another 9,900 were dropped at the trial stage, according to a published report in the Ottawa Citizen last summer.
Statistics Canada figures from 2013-14 show Ontario outstripped all other provinces with 43.8 per cent of criminal proceedings being pulled before they were heard.
Just last month, the Ontario Crown Attorneys Association estimated there are currently about 6,000 criminal cases that could see charges stayed or withdrawn. It blames a shortage of judges, prosecutors and court space.
Why should I be in financial disarray for the next 30 years trying to pay back what I owe, that I had to borrow to get my freedom?- Collin Fitzgerald
Hillier said much of the attention has been focused on people stuck in the system awaiting trial, but little is being said about those who've already been through the wringer.
"At the present time, the only remedy or avenue is to go back into the very system — to try to seek a remedy in the courts, compensation through the court," he said. People who feel they've been wronged by the criminal justice system can seek remedy through lawsuits.
Fitzgerald's case warrants a specific review of what happened and what went wrong with the prosecution, Hillier said.
Both the OPP and the Ontario Attorney General's office declined requests by CBC News for interviews, but a spokesman for the Attorney General's department stood by the prosecutor's decision to maintain the charges.
Part of the problem, Hillier believes, involves the fact that police in Ontario, unlike some other provinces, have more freedom to lay charges without the supervision of the Crown.
Wounded Warriors Canada, which helps organize services for vet with PTSD, has been trying to help Fitzgerald with housing options, getting him a place where he can visit with his daughter, but help with legal bills is outside the organization's mandate.
Executive director Scott Maxwell said they've had pleas from other veterans who have faced legal trouble, but he said Fitzgerald's is a unique case that warrants attention.
"The time to get engaged — through the public and anybody who wants to help — is right now," he said.