VANCOUVER — A man who spent nearly 40 years in prison for the murder of his 22-month old cousin told a B.C. Appeal Court he's innocent and didn't understand the plea deal he signed until it was later explained in court.
Phillip Tallio pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Delavina Mack in April 1983.
Mack's body was found in a bedroom in the family home in Bella Coola on B.C.'s northern coast. Court has heard the girl had been sexually assaulted.
Tallio was 17 years old at the time. He was released on bail in January.
He told the panel of three judges on Tuesday he wasn't aware of the implications of the agreement his trial lawyer had him sign.
“It felt to me like there wasn’t any chance for me to ask questions or give my opinion,” he said about his experience during the 1983 trial.
The gravity of the situation dawned on him when he was transferred to prison, he said.
Tallio received a life sentence, without chance of parole for 10 years as part of the plea agreement. He was never released from prison because he refused to admit his guilt to the parole board.
Tallio told the judges Tuesday he didn't kill the girl.
Documents submitted to the Appeal Court by his lawyers argue police ignored other suspects.
But during cross-examination at the first day of what is expected to be a month-long hearing, the Crown questioned Tallio’s version of events and his insistence that he did not understand his previous plea.
The Crown also spent part of the first day working to establish Tallio’s reading and writing comprehension, questioning him about a series of letters and poems he is alleged to have written.
Crown attorney Janet Dickie asked Tallio about a letter he wrote to an acquaintance where he described how his family wanted him to fight the murder charge, but he said he saw the value in pleading guilty to be eligible for parole in 10 years versus 25.
Tallio did not dispute writing the letter.
In other letters, Tallio said he received help from fellow inmates in crafting letters and using words he might not have necessarily understood at the time.
“I had educated people help me. Whether or not I understood it, to them it made sense,” he said.
Dickie questioned whether Tallio’s claim that he could not remember certain letters was an excuse for the "sophisticated" vocabulary they contained.
Tallio denied the claim.
“As I’ve said time and time again, when you spend as much time as I did in prison … all you have time to do is sit and read,” he told the court. “Becoming educated? I did that along the way. But being able to use complicated phrases or big words, I had to have somebody with a higher education explain those words to me.”
Members of Mack's family also attended Tuesday's hearing.
“I can say it’s important for them that they be here,” said Sarah Rauch, a lawyer and spokeswoman for the family. “They’re here representing the baby.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2020.
Nick Wells, The Canadian Press