Judge reserves bail decision for Sask. sisters who claim wrongful conviction after nearly 30 years in prison

Odelia Quewezance speaks to media outside the Court of King’s Bench in Yorkton, Sask., on Tuesday. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Odelia Quewezance speaks to media outside the Court of King’s Bench in Yorkton, Sask., on Tuesday. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Odelia Quewezance's family sang her Happy Birthday Wednesday on the steps of the Court of King's Bench in Yorkton, Sask.

She and her sister argued this week for their release on bail after decades in prison for a murder they say they didn't commit, but will have to wait a little while longer before they know if they have succeeded after the judge reserved his decision.

Odelia, 51, and Nerissa Quewezance, 48, Saulteaux woman from the Keeseekoose First Nation, were convicted in the 1993 murder of Anthony Joseph Dolff, a 70-year-old farmer near Kamsack, Sask., and have been in the prison system for nearly 30 years. The sisters have maintained their innocence.

The federal Justice Department started a review last year, saying there may be a reasonable basis to conclude their convictions were a miscarriage of justice.

A criminal conviction review can take years. 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.

In the meantime, the sisters' defence team is arguing for their conditional release, as are advocates like Ontario Senator Kim Pate and Congress of Aboriginal Peoples vice-chief Kim Beaudin.

James Lockyer, the sisters' lawyer, used previous overturned convictions to argue the women were wrongfully imprisoned, and argued their confessions were forced and unreliable.

"We had two young Indigenous girls," he said in court. "Their vulnerability in that police station … is obvious."

Lockyer said the sisters' statements to police weren't recorded, unlike that of a youth who was also convicted in Dolff's murder and served four years.

Lockyer also said there was a battle of credibility between two Indigenous girls and the Kamsack Police Department, and "Odelia and Nerissa were bound to lose that contest."

Crown prosecutor Kelly Kaip opposed the release pending the ministerial review and argued the request should be dismissed.

Kaip focused Tuesday on parole documents detailing the sisters' records over the past three decades, including Nerissa's record of obstructing a police officer, assaulting a police officer and being unlawfully at large several times in the past three decades.

Kaip began her arguments Wednesday with a graphic recounting of Dolff's death, moving his family — present in the courtroom — to tears. Kaip referenced court documents that outlined how the sisters assaulted the man with items like a kettle and a whiskey bottle.

She argued that there isn't enough proof the sisters are innocent in Dolff's death.

"His family has missed him dearly, and they miss him because three people wanted to take $700 from him," Kaip said, referencing stolen money that led to the fatal confrontation.

Kaip also said that despite the sisters' improvements, including leadership roles in programs and volunteering, their criminal histories and parole violations suggest they should not be released.

Nerissa's request for day parole was revoked in May 2022 on the basis that, that while she had long-term goals to improve, Nerissa struggled to meet conditions like avoiding addictive substances.

Odelia was 20 years old and her sister was 18 when the pair was arrested near Kamsack, Sask. They were convicted the next year.

The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the sisters' appeal three years later.

Odelia received day parole with strict conditions last year. She is currently staying at the YWCA in Regina, though  the defence is hoping to have her moved to Eagle Women's Lodge in Winnipeg.

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

If released, Odelia would live with her partner of 26 years and their children in a small Saskatchewan community, court heard.

Her sister is looking to stay with Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin in his Saskatoon home if she gets conditional release.

The sisters are asking for supportive conditions like trauma counselling and relapse prevention programming, rather than substance abstinence and curfew conditions.

"When Nerissa was unlawfully at large, she was … helping people and taking care of animals. The judge needs to look at whether they're a risk to the public and I'd say no," Ontario Senator Kim Pate, who has advocated for the sisters, said.

After the proceedings, Lockyer said the sisters had a good hearing before Justice Donald Layh and are hopeful of their chance at bail.

Kaip declined to comment, stating "the matter is currently before the courts and it would not be appropriate to comment at this time."

Family members of Dolff who were in the courtroom Wednesday declined to comment.

Presiding judge Donald Layh told the court that he would reserve his decision for a later date.

Layh adjourned Wednesday with plans to reconvene by phone in late February.

He has asked the defence to provide detailed release conditions to the Crown, who will provide comments before the court reconvenes.