Advocating for the wrongfully convicted

Photo by Shanelle Somers

The Student Social Humanities Society's annual Innocence Canada event held at UOIT'S Charles Street Building downtown Oshawa. From left, Innocence Canada representative, Vivian Lieu, Hamdi Jimale

Three men, all with something historically important in common. Robert Baltovich, convicted of second degree murder in 1991; James Driskoll, convicted of first-degree murder in 1991; and Jack White, convicted of sexual assault in 1995.

Each one spent more than 10 years innocently behind bars after a wrongful conviction. Each were also freed by the work of Innocence Canada.

Innocence Canada is a non-profit organization that works to advocate for those who have been wrongfully convicted.

They have successfully freed 21 wrongfully convicted Canadians. Currently, Innocence Canada is pursuing 86 wrongful conviction cases. The cases include charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter and assault.

The highest number of these cases is in Ontario, which according to Innocence Canada holds 31 people behind bars who are innocent.

The organization works to not only intervene on behalf of the innocent but to also bring awareness to the public about this problem.

Some of these efforts have taken place in partnership with students from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) at the downtown Oshawa campus in conjunction with the Student Social Humanities Society (SSHS).

The SSHS is a student society located on UOIT’s downtown campus that strives to create community on campus and make students feel connected to each other through events that encourage student engagement.

The SSHS has been involved in generating discussion around those who have been wrongfully convicted annually in partnership with Innocence Canada since 2014.

Students at the Charles Street Building were asked Oct. 2 what they knew about wrongful convictions and presented with information about the organization by SSHS president Hamdi Jimale and Fourth Year Representative Vivian Lieu.

“This isn’t just a conversation that is limited to classrooms, advocacy and support is our mandate and that is something that we not only offer to people on our campus but to people around the world and we want to show the world that we are listening,” Jimale says.

Some of the highest numbers of those wrongfully convicted are within the United States of America. A report by the National Registry of Exonerations shows race is a factor within the United States when looking at those wrongfully convicted.

Black people represent the 13 per cent of the population of the United States of America but they represent 47 per cent on the list of the National Registry of Exonerations.

One of the most well-known Canadian cases to involve race was Donald Marshall Jr. who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a friend at 17 years of age in 1990.

According to news reports, Marshall was a Mi’kmaq and a federal report indicated racism contributed to his wrongful conviction.

Jimale stresses how important it is to recognize how identity can play a role in the justice system.

“It can happen to anybody and I think that is the number one thing we want to promote when driving discussion. It’s something that we should all care about essentially because it can happen to you or me,” says Lieu.