Saulteaux sisters jailed for nearly 30 years to be conditionally released
Nerissa Quewezance, 48, and her sister Odelia Quewezance, 51, will be conditionally released while they await results of a ministerial review of their second-degree murder charge and conviction.
People in the Yorkton Court of King's Bench applauded when court closed just before 11 a.m. CST Monday.
"I'm feeling overwhelmed, I'm relieved that we're home free and I just want to thank the judge," Odelia told reporters, while standing hand-in-hand with her sister beside her.
She also thanked her family and supporters for being at the courthouse with them.
The Quewezance sisters were convicted of second-degree murder charges in 1994 for the death of Kamsack farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff.
Incarcerated people can apply for a judicial review when all avenues for appeal have been exhausted. When it 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.
These reviews can take years, and it's not clear how long this one will be.
The sisters will have to abide by several conditions on their release, including having no contact with anyone who was a witness at their 1994 trial, except for their immediate family who they cannot speak about the trial with. Other conditions are not having contact with the Dolff family, and a curfew of 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Crown prosecutor Kelly Kaip opposed the release of the sisters, and told reporters Monday that the Dolff family is disappointed. She said she will be taking a closer look at Justice Donald Layh's decision and will determine next steps from there.
During the hearing in January, Kaip argued there isn't enough proof the sisters are innocent in Dolff's death, and that despite their improvements while incarcerated — including leadership roles in programs and volunteering — their criminal histories and parole violations suggest they shouldn't be released.
The violations were something Justice Layh spoke at length about in his decision, but ultimately he decided the sisters were not a flight risk, and that he had a reasonable assumption that the sisters would come back into custody willingly.
WATCH | Sisters win conditional release:
Kaip retold the story of Dolff's death during a court hearing in January. Dolff was beaten, stabbed and had a telephone cord wrapped around his neck.
Both sisters were present at Dolff's death and admitted to attacking him during their trial in the 1990s, but maintain they didn't kill the 70-year-old man.
The sisters' cousin, who was a minor at the time of the murder, admitted in court to stabbing Dolff and was convicted alongside them in Dolff's death. He served four years for second-degree murder.
'It's obviously very emotional': sisters' lawyer
Congress of Aboriginal Peoples vice-chief Kim Beaudin said the sisters are not a risk to the public, and plans to house Nerissa during the release.
"It's a really big deal. The reason I put my name forward too is, I recognize how the courts work and they'll pretty much use any excuse to make sure that people can't get home, particularly Indigenous people," he said.
"I just wanted to ensure that opportunity was there for her."
Beaudin said he really wants to make sure that Nerissa gets introduced to the right supports, as it's difficult to adjust to life outside after being in an institution for so long.
Odelia is set to reside in Rhein, Sask.
James Lockyer, the sisters' lead defence counsel and co-founder of Innocence Canada, argued in January that the sisters' confessions in the early '90s were forced and unreliable, and that the sisters should be released pending their case review.
He said the case in the '90s was a battle of credibility between the two Indigenous girls and the Kamsack Police Department, and "Odelia and Nerissa were bound to lose that contest."
"We're very happy with the result and it's great to see Odelia and Nerissa free. It's been a very long time for them," Lockyer told reporters Monday.
"It's obviously very emotional. Odelia can go back to living full-time, all the time, with her two twin daughters and her husband, and Nerissa is going to be out of an institution, out of an institutional environment and into a lovely home."
Lockyer said this is just one step on the journey to the goal of getting the sisters' convictions quashed.