A Saskatchewan man, who claims he was wrongfully convicted of killing his estranged wife has lost a 15-year battle to clear his name after the Supreme Court of Canada on Thursday dismissed his request for appeal.
Some legal experts say Leon Walchuk was found guilty on the basis of bad science and “deeply flawed” expert testimony.
Walchuk, 51, was accused of setting the fatal fire that killed Corinne (Cory) Walchuk after he beat her with a hockey stick.
Court documents detailed injuries to the body of 29-year-old Cory, which included “multiple blows,” bruising and burns that had occurred prior to death, dried blood in her mouth, and her hair “matted with blood.”
“Cory Walchuk was dead or dying at the bottom of the basement stairs, having been beaten without mercy by Leon Walchuk to a point where she was either unconscious or in any event unable to escape the fire as a result of her injuries,” Justice L.A. Kyle wrote in his decision.
Separated since 1994, the Walchuks were still bitterly at odds over financial matters and custody of their two children. On March 30, 1998, Cory drove to the family’s Melville farmhouse to pick up the kids – who were actually at his parents’ house – and the pair fought.
Walchuk did not deny that he had hit Cory but said she had driven her car through the porch in anger, and that the fire broke out from gasoline that had leaked on impact.
The Crown said Walchuk poured the gasoline inside the house and staged the car crash into the house. The case against him relied in large part on the testimony of several expert witnesses who concluded that the fire was started deliberately.
Walchuk was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced in June 2000 to life in prison.
The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld his conviction in March 2001.
Then the Innocence Project took up his cause.
The organization, co-founded by Osgoode Hall Law School professor Alan Young, has law school students re-examine cases for possible miscarriage of justice. Its efforts helped free Romeo Phillion, who spent 31 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
In 2009, with the help of the Innocence Project, Walchuk, submitted new opinions from three arson experts and asked then-Justice Minister Rob Nicholson for a ministerial review of his conviction, but was turned down.
In 2013, the Federal Court dismissed Walchuk’s application for judicial review of the minister’s decision, and earlier this year the Federal Court of Appeal dismissed his appeal.
At least two investigative journalists have followed Walchuk’s case and believe he is not guilty.
Long-time Winnipeg broadcaster Peter Warren says he has been “working on (Walchuk’s) release” for years.
Julian Sher, documentary producer and author of several true-crime books, is also on Walchuk’s side.
Sher’s bestseller “Until You Are Dead: Steven Truscott’s Long Ride Into History” is widely credited with helping to reopen the case of Steven Truscott, who, in 1959, at the age of 14, was wrongly sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Lynne Harper. Truscott’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, and he was acquitted in 2007.
“The Walchuk case and many others I have probed over the years illustrate, all too often, that mistaken, misused or misunderstood science is helping to send innocent people to jail,” Sher wrote in a 2013 article in The Walrus.
Sher cites a report by U.S. arson specialist Gerald Hurst for the Innocence Project that concluded the expert testimony that convicted Walchuk “was, at best, deeply flawed.”
Walchuk will be eligible for parole starting in June 2016.