The Long Road to Overturning a Wrongful Conviction in Canada

According to data from Canada’s Department of Justice, most wrongful conviction cases fail to make it past the first stage

In 1992, Maria Shepherd pleaded guilty to a crime she didn’t commit: killing her three-year-old stepdaughter. Her lawyer told her she didn’t stand a chance against the testimony of renowned pathologist Charles Smith. Knowing she could spend years in prison away from her young children if she fought and lost her case, Shepherd pleaded guilty to manslaughter and lived with a wrongful conviction on her record for 25 years.

Thanks to the lawyers who worked on her behalf and a public inquiry that discredited the doctor, Shepherd’s wrongful conviction was finally overturned in 2016 on appeal. Although she only spent eight months in prison, less than half of her two-year sentence, the consequences of her wrongful conviction stayed with her for decades.

Although Shepherd’s wrongful conviction was overturned on appeal, sometimes appeals can serve to cement a wrongful conviction instead of correct it. Recognizing this possibility for gross injustice, the Department of Justice has established a review process for people who have been wrongly convicted even after an appeal. These individuals can apply for ministerial review to get a new appeal or—in cases involving more egregious miscarriages of justice—a new trial.

While the road to exoneration may be long and winding, the destination is desolate. The last 15 years of data from the Department of Justice show that the vast majority of ministerial review applications are unsuccessful.

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