Liberals introduce ‘Milgaard’s Law’ to create review process for wrongful convictions

New legislation introduced in the House of Commons Thursday would make it easier and faster for people who may have been wrongfully convicted to have their cases reviewed.

Justice Minister David Lametti is also hoping it will make such reviews more accessible to women, Indigenous people and racialized Canadians.

The bill is dubbed “David and Joyce Milgaard’s Law,” named for the man who was released in 1992 after being wrongfully imprisoned for 23 years, and his mother who fought relentlessly to free him.

“We need a system that moves more quickly, both for people applying as well as for victims and the process needs to be independent,” said Lametti.

The bill would establish an independent commission to review, investigate and decide which criminal cases should be sent back to the justice system.

Justice department officials told media in a briefing on the new law that a wrongful conviction review currently takes between two years and six years to complete, depending on the circumstances.

Under the new system, Lametti says there will be “more people dedicated” to working on wrongful conviction files.

The government says it is rare for miscarriages of justice to occur but a formal process to review such cases is needed.

The government says applicants for a review would have to first exhaust all their rights of appeal before applying to the independent commission.

Susan Milgaard, David’s sister, said she would say what her mother would say: “It’s a glorious day, hallelujah.”

She says when they were trying to get her brother’s case reviewed, “nobody wanted to do anything to support getting David’s application through.”

More than once, the review was denied.

“That was three reviews we had to go through,” she said. “That can’t happen in the independent review board. That’s the difference. And that’s a lot of years for a lot of lives, not just the inmates, the families too.”

Lametti said he promised David Milgaard he would “make the system better” when they met in 2019, before David’s death in 2022.

It is not clear when the commission would start operating, how much it will cost or who its members will be, but Lametti says it will be made up of five to nine people with experience working in criminal justice.

James Lockyer, a lawyer who co-founded Innocence Canada and helped several people prove a wrongful conviction, including Milgaard, said he has been advocating for the creation of a commission to review cases for 30 years.

“To realize the importance of the commission is just to say to yourself, that if this commission had existed back in the early 1970s, it can safely be said it would have saved David Milgaard two decades, at least two decades, of those 23 years that he spent in prison,” he said.

Lockyer said advocates had tried to get support for creating the commission under other governments and from other political parties.

He said the Liberals, NDP and Green party have all expressed support for its creation at times but “the Conservatives have never responded one way or the other.”

Lametti said he is going to try to pass the law as fast as he can, and believes he has “good support” in both the House of Commons and the Senate.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Thursday his party will support the new law which should be enough to get it passed.

Lametti said members of the commission will provide funding for outreach programs and resources to support applicants during the review process, focusing on people with “limited means”

“When I look at the files that come to me, I see a clear pattern. The applicants are overwhelmingly white men, and our prison populations do not look like that,” he said.

“This tells me that the system is not as accessible to women or to Indigenous peoples or Black or racialized people who are disproportionately represented in our criminal justice system. We have to change that, some of these files go back decades.”

Innocence Canada, the non-profit organization that advocates for the wrongfully convicted, says it has helped exonerate 24 people since 1993.

It’s most recent success was getting a new trial for Robert Sanderson, a Manitoba man found guilty in 1997 of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 25 years.

His appeal was denied by the Manitoba Court of Appeal in 1999, but Innocence Canada took up his case and discovered new DNA evidence. Lametti ordered the Manitoba court grant Sanderson a new hearing earlier this week, saying there was likely a miscarriage of justice.

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