Arrested youth should not be interrogated alone, says man wrongfully convicted of murder

Ron Moffatt was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1956, when he was 14 years old. After months in jail, he was released when the real serial killer, Peter Woodcock, was caught. The judge recommended police should no longer interrogate minors without a guardian or lawyer present, but six decades later they still do.

As a teen, Ron Moffatt was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1956

Ron Moffatt was wrongly convicted of murder in the 1950s, and kept his experience secret for many years. He's now telling his story in a new book. (Nate Hendley)
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In 1956, Ron Moffatt was taken into a small interrogation room by police in Toronto.

"[They] stuck me up against the wall and they played good cop, bad cop," Moffat told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"In them days it was quite normal for police to use physical violence against suspects. He threatened it; it never happened but he threatened it," he said.

Moffatt was 14 years old at the time.

The "terrified" teenager had been picked up by police over the brutal murder of seven-year-old Wayne Mallette.

You'll say anything to get out of that room, and stop them from questioning you.- Ron Moffatt

Moffatt was innocent — he had been miles away from the scene of the murder. But under pressure of interrogation, he confessed.

"It's hard for people to understand why anybody would confess to a crime they did not commit," he told Tremonti.

The Boy on the Bicycle tells the story of Moffatt's wrongful conviction of the murder of a 7-year-old boy in 1956. (Five Rivers Chapmanry Publishing)

"If you're in that room for four or five hours, and you're without drink or food ... you'll say anything to get out of that room, and stop them from questioning you."

He was alone when police interrogated him. His parents were not informed until hours after he was taken to the police station.

Moffatt was convicted and spent eight months in jail, but was released when police arrested the real murderer — teenage serial killer Peter Woodcock.

The judge who released Moffatt chastised him for confessing, but also recommended police should no longer interrogate minors without a guardian or lawyer present.

Six decades later, that can still happen. Currently in Canada, police must inform minors of their right to have a guardian or legal counsel present, but if they waive that right, it is not mandatory.

"That should be automatic," Moffatt said.

"A guardian or some kind of legal representation should be automatically in the room when a juvenile — for a serious crime — is being interrogated."

When The Current asked the Department of Justice whether there was any intention to change the law, it only reiterated a minor's right to have a parent, guardian or lawyer present if they choose.

Ron Moffatt, left, and Nate Hendley, author of The Boy on the Bicycle. (Jeanne Enright)

Moffatt now lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and works as an editorial cartoonist. He kept his wrongful conviction a secret for years, but has now collaborated with Nate Hendley on a new book about his experience: The Boy on the Bicycle: A Forgotten Case of Wrongful Conviction in Toronto.

Parents might not give good legal advice, warns advocate

Despite good intentions, a parent could inadvertently compromise their child's position during an interrogation, said Mary Birdsell, executive director of the legal aid clinic Justice for Children and Youth.

"They might suggest things like, 'You should tell the police everything you know' ... that may or may not be good legal advice in the circumstances," she told Tremonti.

Young people upon arrest are entitled to speak to an adult they trust, said Mary Birdsell, executive director of Justice for Children and Youth. (Submitted by Mary Birdsell)

Young people upon arrest are entitled to speak to an adult they trust, she said, and police have a duty to locate that person.

While police must also consider whether the young person understands what they are giving up by waiving that right, the decision to waive it must be taken seriously.

"It may be the case that while they're actually making a statement the young person is embarrassed or ashamed," she said.

"The parent relationship might not actually be the supportive one that we hope it's going to be."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by The Current's John Chipman.