In June of 1990, University of Toronto student Elizabeth Bain goes missing from her Scarborough campus. A few days later her blood-stained car is discovered. But Elizabeth’s body is never found.
The police investigate. The vehicle is carefully examined. Witnesses are interviewed. Although there’s no physical evidence directly linking Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Robert Baltovich, to the disappearance, the young man is arrested. Two years later, he’s convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole for 17 years.
While Robert is behind bars, the Scarborough Rapist, only later identified as Paul Bernardo, is still at large. His modus operandi is strikingly similar to the circumstances in the case of Elizabeth Bain. Still, it’s not until 2000, after the case captures the attention of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, that Robert is released on bail pending his appeal.
In 2004, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturns Robert’s conviction, stating that the original trial judge’s charge to the jury was one-sided and prejudicial. But an overturned conviction is not the same as an acquittal; Robert is not declared innocent. Although he’s out of prison, he’s not a free man.
Now, in 2005, Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General has decided to retry Robert on second-degree murder charges. While the case against him in 1992 was weak, today, with so much new evidence implicating a far more likely suspect, perhaps Robert will at last gain the freedom he longs for.
During the morning of March 13, 1986, a female worker at the Forbes Hospital was raped. Other employees at the hospital pursued the attacker but he got away.
A short time later, Thomas Doswell was arrested. At his trial he was convicted and sentenced to 13 to 26 years in prison. On four separate occasions he was denied parole because he insisted he was innocent and refused to accept responsibility for the attack.
On Monday August 1, 2005, after serving 19 years, Thomas walked out of prison a free man, not because he finally fessed up to his crime and made parole, but because the courts finally realized he was innocent as he claimed.
It turns out there were a number of irregularities in his case. The victim stated that the man who attacked her had a beard; Thomas did not. Thomas had suffered a neck injury at work and was wearing a neck brace; the witnesses never mentioned that. Of the eight photographs of possible suspects shown to witnesses, only Thomas’ photo was marked with a large “R”, signifying a previous rape conviction, a charge for which Thomas had long since been acquitted. (Under new guidelines this practice will change. Photos presented to witnesses will not be marked and those officers presenting them will themselves be unaware of the identity of the suspect or of the other individuals in the photo lineup.)
But none of these facts were enough to exonerate Thomas Doswell.
Eventually, at the urging of the Innocence Project but against the advice of the prosecuting attorneys, semen specimens collected during the medical examination of the rape victim in 1986 were retested. When it was found that they were not from Thomas Doswell, the prosecutors quickly joined the motion to have the charges vacated.
After his release, Thomas said, “Having the faith I have in Jesus has taught me that I couldn’t walk around for 20 years with anger bottled up in me. It would have killed me. It would have done more damage to me than good.” He also said, “I’m thankful justice has been served. The court system is not perfect, but it works.”
On August 18th, 2005, Dennis Rader, the self-named BTK serial killer, was been sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms, at least 175 years without the possibility of parole. Since Kansas had no death penalty at the time of the murders, this is the longest sentence the courts can impose. (The murders all occurred between 1974 and 1991; the death penalty was not reinstated until 1994.)
While addressing the court in a choked and halting voice, Rader said, “I know the victim’s families will never be able to forgive me. I hope somewhere deep down, eventually that will happen.” Judging by the reaction of some in the court, Rader may be disappointed.
Kevin Bright, the brother of one of Rader’s victims, Kathryn Bright, said, “No remorse, no compassion — he had no mercy. I think that’s what he ought to receive.” Kevin had first-hand knowledge of Rader’s actions. He was shot by Rader but managed to escape.
Rader kept photographs and journals detailing his exploits, along with what he called “hit kits” — bags containing rubber gloves, rope, tape, bandanas, and handcuffs.
“A dark side is there, but now I think light is beginning to shine,” Rader said during his testimony. “Hopefully someday God will accept me.”
It’s unlikely anyone else will.
Canada and the US certainly have no monopoly on wrongful convictions.
In China in 1994 She (pronounced “Shuh”) Xianglin was convicted of killing his wife. He even confessed to the crime. But his conviction was overturned after he spent 11 years in prison, when his wife returned. It seems she had simply run off with another man.
Xianglin says he signed the confession without reading it after he was tortured by police. Human rights groups have said that torture is common in this system that relies heavily on confessions to crack difficult cases. According to some reports, prisoners are sometimes tortured to death, their relatives being told that they died of natural causes or committed suicide. Curiously, one of the officers who allegedly took part in Xianglin’s abuse hanged himself when authorities began an investigation into the incident.
Xianglin has received compensation for his time in prison, $7.90 US a day for each of the 4,009 days he spent confined, plus $24,600 for lost earnings. He has not received any compensation for the beatings he says he suffered, nor have any of the police involved in the case apologized.