SAINT JOHN, N.B. — Walter Gillespie opens his fridge and shows his meagre supplies — a loaf of bread, eggs, peanut butter and juice. There are also a few cans of beans stacked in a cupboard in the 80-year-old's Saint John, N.B., apartment.
Last week, a judge acquitted Gillespie and his friend Robert Mailman, 76, of a 1983 murder for which they both served lengthy prison terms. The acquittal came after fresh evidence emerged and the federal justice minister ordered a new trial. In her written ruling after the Crown announced it would not present any evidence, Chief Justice Tracey DeWare of New Brunswick's Court of King's Bench called the case a miscarriage of justice and offered an apology.
Gillespie said the apology was appreciated, but what the two men really want is financial compensation for their lost decades. And they fear time is running out.
Mailman has been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, but he would like to be able to leave something to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren before he dies.
"Everything that we've been put through and everything that we lost, I believe it's only reasonable for me and (Gillespie) to have some kind of compensation for this," Mailman said. "They just can't say 'Sorry, goodbye.' That shouldn't be allowed."
Kent Roach, a law professor at the University of Toronto and co-founder of the Canadian Registry of Wrongful Convictions, said one of the problems is that people whose convictions are overturned are given less support than the guilty receive when they are released from prison. Gillespie, for example, had been working as a cleaner in the halfway house where he lived, but after he was declared innocent, he lost that income.
"What is needed is some interim payments that are made quickly, and that allow people to get on with their lives and, hopefully, to transition," Roach said.
In the United Kingdom, he said, the government gives interim compensation immediately, which doesn't compromise the right of the wrongfully convicted or their families to seek full compensation down the road.
"It's really shameful that Canada doesn't have that kind of system," he said. "And like so much stuff in Canada, there's a bit of buck-passing between the federal government and the provincial government."
For the moment, Gillespie is living on his old age pension, paying $800 a month for a tiny apartment that was once a hotel room. "At least give me a half-decent apartment so I can live the right way," Gillespie said in an interview this week. "I'm living like an animal now."
Mailman lives with his common-law partner in Saint John. He combines his pension with his partner's, which means he is in slightly better financial shape than Gillespie.
Roach said money cannot repair the damage done by wrongful convictions — to the accused, to the crime victims and to all of their families. He noted the time the men lost to be with their families and what they could have contributed as fathers, grandfathers and, in the case of Mailman, a great-grandfather.
He said there is no established formula to determine how much Gillespie and Mailman should receive. Only about half of the wrongfully convicted receive any compensation, he said, and often the amounts remain confidential.
"No amount of money will compensate for all of those intergenerational harms, but it is kind of the only way that our society has for attempting to make right that which was wrong," Roach said.
Ron Dalton, co-president of Innocence Canada, said the men deserve to be comfortable for the rest of their days. His organization, which fights for the wrongfully convicted, took up the New Brunswick men's case.
"It has to be an amount that recognizes the severity of the mistakes that were made, and how long the errors were allowed to continue," Dalton said.
A submission to the court from Innocence Canada highlighted a series of failings in the prosecution of Gillespie and Mailman, including recanted testimony by key witnesses, evidence withheld from the defence, substandard forensic evidence and a disregard for the men’s solid alibi. They were convicted in 1984 of killing George Gilman Leeman. Mailman served 18 years in prison, while Gillespie served 21 years.
Dalton said Innocence Canada has seen cases where those who were wrongfully convicted died before receiving any compensation. He pointed to another Saint John man, Erin Walsh, who fought his wrongful conviction for 30 years, and was offered a "small settlement" before he died of cancer.
"They were literally trying to out wait him," he said.
Gillespie said he and Mailman believe the government is waiting for them to die so they can wash their hands of the case. "We always thought that all along," he said.
Provincial Justice Minister Ted Flemming did not respond to questions about whether the government would apologize to the men, open a public inquiry or offer compensation. A spokeswoman for Flemming said the minister was not available for an interview and has no comment.
In a statement Friday, Saint John Police Chief Robert Bruce did not address the issue of an apology and compensation, but he announced that he has launched a review of his force's conduct in the wrongful murder convictions.
Roach said it would be difficult for the families to sue if the men died.
"There is a real danger that with no compensation, no public inquiry, the case will perhaps die with these elderly men," he said. "That's shameful and wrong and shouldn't happen in a country that says it's committed to justice."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2024.
Hina Alam, The Canadian Press