‘Innocent until proven guilty.’ This nuanced statement appearing in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms becomes much more complex when put into practice. There are, unfortunately, several factors that could lead to the conviction of an innocent person. Enter Innocence Canada — a non-profit organization located at 111 Peter Street—providing vital support for the wrongly convicted. Since being founded in 1993, it has proven the innocence of and cleared charges against 23 people. At this very moment, Innocence Canada’s team of pro-bono lawyers are currently reviewing approximately 80 claims of innocence. We sat down with Stéphanie Nowak, the Director of Education at Innocence Canada to gain a better understanding of the non-profit’s mission and case reviewing process. Stéphanie also tells us why being rooted in the Toronto Entertainment District is crucial to her team’s success.
Tell us about Innocence Canada—its founding, mission, values and the role it plays in Toronto.
Innocence Canada is a Canadian, non-profit organization based in Toronto. It was founded in 1993, and this year is our 25th year in operation. Innocence Canada is the direct successor of Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC). It evolved out of the Justice for Guy Paul Morin Committee, a grassroots organization formed with the intention of overturning his conviction. Our mandate is two-fold: we work to identify, advocate for, and exonerate individuals convicted of a crime that they did not commit. In addition, we work to prevent future injustices through legal education and reform. Innocence Canada plays an important role in the Canadian justice system. We are the last resort for innocent people convicted of a serious crime to pursue their claim of innocence.
What takes place in your 111 Peter Street office?
Our office is always busy. Our small team of seven takes on a wide range of tasks. We analyze and draft legal documents, plan fundraising events, and meet with clients. What is more, we research legal issues and create educational materials. There is no shortage of things on our to-do list.
Why base Innocence Canada in the Toronto Entertainment District?
Being in the Toronto Entertainment District is important to us, as we need to be close to the courthouses and accessible to the countless partners and volunteers we have the pleasure of working with. We love the area, because when we need a quick pick-me-up, or a short walk to clear our heads, there are so many places to go and things to see. Coffee is really important to us and you’ll often see us grabbing a cup at Little Nicky’s, Dark Horse, and of course, Starbucks.
What role does education play at Innocence Canada, and why is it important?
Education is very important to us. By educating the public and members of the justice system, we can truly work to prevent future miscarriages of justice. Many factors contributing to wrongful convictions are issues most people are unaware of, such as faulty memories or tunnel vision. These may then lead to a misplaced focus on prosecuting one particular person, rather than considering all potential options fairly. There are also factors people just cannot believe happen, such as a false confession. Why would someone who is innocent confess to a crime? It happens more often than one might think. It’s important for everyone to understand why and how wrongful convictions happen, so they are empowered with the knowledge to prevent it from happening to themselves or someone they love – it can truly happen to anyone.
Can you give us a brief description of the case review process? How is this carried out? Who are the main actors involved?
Cases typically come to Innocence Canada in one of two ways: (1) the convicted person submits an application, or (2) a lawyer recommends the case to Innocence Canada as a potential wrongful conviction. After a case has been determined to meet the Initial Case Criteria (conviction for homicide or other serious offence), it is placed on the Waiting List until there are resources available to begin the Case Review process. The Case Review Committee (CRC)—a group of senior members of the criminal bar with extensive knowledge and experience in wrongful conviction work—volunteer their time to oversee the process and make decisions regarding the direction of each case. The Preliminary Review Stage is the first stage in the Case Review process. Innocence Canada staff lawyers identify and obtain case materials required for the case review, such as transcripts, witness statements, and experts’ reports. Following that, a pro bono lawyer called a Case Reviewer, will do an in-depth review of all available case materials to identify avenues of investigation. The Case Reviewer may also develop an investigative plan to find new and compelling evidence of innocence, if warranted by the review. The Full Review results in a report with a recommendation to continue further to the Investigative stage, or to discontinue and declare the case “Inactive”. At this point, we may hire investigators, or experts, to work on the case along side the Case Reviewer. At the end of the Investigative stage, a decision is made by CRC whether to adopt a case or not. Once a case is adopted, a pro bono private bar lawyer begins the long process of drafting a s. 696.1 application to the Minister of Justice. One important thing to note is that lawyers who work on Innocence Canada’s files are working pro bono.
How can readers get involved with, or support, Innocence Canada?
There are many ways to get involved with Innocence Canada. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You can also become a member of our organization on our website. That being said, what we truly need are donations – none of this work is possible without the financial support of our community. You can donate on our website and through your support, we can work to assist countless Canadians. Innocence Canada has and will continue to provide vital support to the wrongfully convicted — in the city of Toronto and Canada more broadly. You can lend out a helping hand to this non-profit organization by donating here.