After 30 years of incarceration, bail hearing for sisters who say they were wrongfully convicted begins

Odelia Quewezance, left, outside the Court of King’s Bench in Yorkton, Sask., on Tuesday, before a bail hearing for her and her sister, who have spent nearly 30 years in prison for what they say are wrongful murder convictions. (Kelly Geraldine Malone/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Odelia Quewezance, left, outside the Court of King’s Bench in Yorkton, Sask., on Tuesday, before a bail hearing for her and her sister, who have spent nearly 30 years in prison for what they say are wrongful murder convictions. (Kelly Geraldine Malone/The Canadian Press - image credit)

As Tuesday's proceedings ended, Nerissa Quewezance replaced her blue blazer with a grey sweatshirt, was placed back in handcuffs and headed to the police vehicle waiting outside the Court of King's Bench in Yorkton, Sask.

Nerissa, 48, and Odelia Quewezance, 50, hope to soon leave the handcuffs behind. The sisters were arrested in 1993 in the death of 70-year-old farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff, near Kamsack, Sask., and have been in the prison system for the nearly 30 years since.

Both sisters, from the Keeseekoose First Nation about 230 kilometres northeast of Regina, have maintained their innocence for decades. The sisters' family and advocates point to another person, a youth at the time, who confessed to the killing and served four years for second-degree murder.

The sisters' second-degree murder convictions, handed out a year later, are being reviewed by the federal Justice Department for a potential miscarriage of justice.

In the meantime, the sisters are in court this week asking for a conditional release with minimal conditions while that review takes place.

"I'm tired, but I feel positive about this and all my relatives are here. Not a lot of people, but a lot of prayers have been said for me and my sister," Odelia said during a break Tuesday.

WATCH | Bail hearing begins for Quewezance sisters:

The defence team will have to prove to Justice Donald Layh that the application for release is not frivolous, that the sisters will return to court if required and that their release is in the public interest.

A judge recently denied a publication ban on this week's proceedings, allowing media to publish what happens over the two-day bail hearing.

Crown prosecutor Kelly Kaip opposes their release.

Kaip cross-examined both sisters Tuesday, pointing to their previous convictions and parole violations, and stating some people may be concerned about Nerissa's risk in public giving past instances of her flouting release conditions.

Nerissa admitted to still having struggles with conditions and substance abuse, which led to some of her parole violations.

Both sisters said they would be open to conditions like substance abstinence and a curfew. Nerissa said she would be open to electronic monitoring.

Odelia was granted a brief release from prison to travel to Ottawa last year to ask for justice. She said at the time that she sat in prison all those years wondering "why?"

"Thirty years is a long time," she told reporters. "That's cruel and unusual punishment."

Odelia was 20 years old and her sister was 18 when the pair was arrested for the 1993 stabbing death of the farmer.

The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear their appeal three years later.

Their lawyer, James Lockyer, has said the sisters were present when Dolff was killed, but that the youth who confessed to the killing has testified the sisters were not involved.

"The two sisters, they need their lives back," Lockyer said.

Justice Donald Layh opened Tuesday's hearing by saying he would be reserving his decision, meaning it could be at least a month before either Odelia and Nerissa know whether they will be conditionally released.

"At first I was like, 'what's another month, what's another week?' But then I think, you know what, me and my sister still shouldn't be sitting in another day," Odelia said.

Michael Bell/The Canadian Press
Michael Bell/The Canadian Press

The elder sister received day parole last year with strict conditions.

"That's what keeps me going, is being home with my children and my partner," Odelia said in court.

Odelia is petitioning to stay with her family if released. Nerissa is hoping to stay with Congress of Aboriginal People's vice chief Kim Beaudin, a longstanding advocate in their case.

Beaudin said his home is prepared to take in Nerissa, with knowledge of available supports, and he has taken in people in similar conditions in the past.

Nerissa's parole was previously denied and she has remained behind bars in Fraser Valley Institution for Women in British Columbia.

"Odelia and Nerissa are the victims of a justice system plagued by racism and prejudice," said Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Chief Elmer St. Pierre in a news release Monday.

"The Saskatchewan government has spent 30 years repeatedly denying the sisters justice, so now they must be granted bail immediately."

When the criminal conviction review process is over, a report and legal advice will be prepared for the federal justice minister. The minister can then order a new trial or appeal, or dismiss the application if he is not convinced there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The sisters have credited David Milgaard with championing their case and getting it on the radar of Innocence Canada, an advocacy group founded by Lockyer.

Milgaard, who died last year, became an outspoken advocate for the wrongfully convicted after spending 23 years in prison for a 1969 rape and murder he didn't commit. He had also applied to the justice minister for a review of his case, which led to his release.

An advocate was expected to deliver a petition with about 57,000 signatures in support of the sisters to the provincial justice minister at the legislature in Regina Tuesday.