Ronald Dalton case featured in new book

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Rosie Mullaley
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Book a collection of wrongful convictions

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Ronald Dalton’s daughter was in kindergarten when he went to prison.

Two days after he was freed, he watched her graduate from high school.

It was that time missed with his family and the impact it had on his life which prompted author Hélèna Katz to include Dalton’s story in her latest book.

Of the 12 cases she profiles in “Justice Miscarried: Inside Wrongful Convictions in Canada,” Dalton’s case touched an emotional chord with Katz.

“It was about the lost years,” she said. “It just broke my heart.”

A former bank manager, Dalton was convicted in 1989 of second-degree murder in the 1988 death of his wife, Brenda Dalton, in their home in Gander.

He was sentenced to life in prison with no eligibility of parole for 10 years. Twelve days after the conviction, Dalton filed an appeal, but it didn’t see the light of day in a courtroom until almost a decade later.

After spending more than eight years behind bars at the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B., the Newfoundland Court of Appeal overturned Dalton’s conviction in May 1998, released him on bail and ordered a new trial.

At that trial, in 2000, Dalton was found not guilty after forensic evidence showed his wife had choked on cereal.

“Justice Miscarried,” recently published by Dundurn Press in Toronto, details the night Brenda Dalton died, the questionable tactics used by the police in their investigation, the errors made along the way, the testimony at the trial and the aftermath of the guilty verdict, his struggle to survive in a maximum-security prison and his painful journey to prove his innocence.

Throughout it all, author Hélèna Katz points out, Ronald Dalton’s sister, Linda Gallant, took in his three children and raised them alongside her own three.

In a telephone interview with The Telegram from her home in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, Katz admitted she shed a few tears writing the book.

The Dalton case was especially heart-wrenching because of the effect it had on him and his family.

“He missed seeing his three children grow up,” Katz wrote in her introduction. Dalton’s story is also highlighted on the back cover.

While Katz briefly mentions two other Newfoundlanders wrongfully convicted of murder — Randy Druken and Gregory Parsons — in a list, she admitted she found Dalton’s case particularly captivating.

“Mr. Dalton spent eight years in prison — an incredibly long time —  trying to rectify the justice system,” said Katz, a former reporter with the Montreal Gazette who has a master’s degree in criminology.

“This man was a bank manager who got caught up in a wrongful conviction.”

Katz reviewed dozens of wrongful conviction cases in Canada before making her selections.

The book includes high-profile-cases such as that of David Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted in the 1969 rape and stabbing of a nursing assistant in Saskatchewan.

He was cleared in 1997 after more than two decades in jail.

Donald Marshall Jr. is another chapter.

Marshall, a Mi’kmaq, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering an acquaintance in 1971. He spent 11 years in jail before being acquitted by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal in 1983.

Also included are Jason Dix, Simon Marshall, Gary Staples, Guy Paul Morin, Clayton Johnson, William Mullins-Johnson, Thomas Sophonow, Michel Dumont and Gordon Folland.

“My intention was to take readers on a bit of a journey from police investigation to forensics and show that errors can happen, and maybe at the end, give them a better understanding how things work and how things don’t work,” said Katz, who intentionally didn’t include photos of the wrongfully convicted in the book to protect their privacy.

She said she selected cases to highlight the different types of errors that were made.

In Dalton’s case, it was a scientific error that was key in sending him to jail.

Eventually Dalton’s new defence lawyer, Jerome Kennedy — now the provincial health minister — used evidence from 10 of the world’s top pathologists to dispute St. John’s pathologist Dr. Charles Hutton’s assertion that Brenda had been murdered.

Kennedy’s experts concluded she had choked to death and had been injured by those who tried to resuscitate her.

“We tend to assume scientists who testify are fully qualified to do so,” Katz said.

“But in the case of Ronald Dalton, forensic pathologists, in fact, didn’t have much training.”

She notes that forensic pathology wasn’t recognized as a medical sub-specialty in Canada until 2003 — 15 years later after Dalton’s conviction.

Katz is the author of four books, including the Canadian bestseller “The Mad Trapper: The Incredible Tale of a Famous Canadian Manhunt.” She was inspired to write a book on wrongful convictions after seeing a TV report on Romeo Phillion, who was wrongfully convicted in the 1967 death of an Ottawa firefighter.

“I remember having the image in my head of the reporters’ scrum with his lawyer James Lockyer, and it got me intrigued,” she said.

In 2004, as she began researching wrongful convictions in Canada — the various cases and what caused them. She was struck by how many people’s lives are affected by wrongful convictions.

“I hope people, in reading the book, will really think about that.” said Katz, who chose 12 cases to profile to reflect the number of people who sit on a jury.

“These are people who lost so much because they got it wrong. They got caught up in it. …

“It’s like a train. Once it’s going, it’s hard to stop and you can’t put the train in reverse.”

Wrongful convictions are also a huge blow to the families of the people who were murdered, she points out.

“For a family (of a murder victim), if there’s a wrongful conviction, it makes it harder to get closure,” she said.

“They feel relief when a person is caught for the crime, but then they find out they got it wrong.

“It reopens the wounds and makes it so hard on them.”

In the book, Katz also reflects on the justice system as a whole. She doesn’t offer solutions, but leaves room for people to reflect on what can be done better.

“With every step, there are things we can do better,” she said.

“Unfortunately, it’s not possible to create a justice system that makes no mistakes because it’s a system that’s staffed by human beings and there is no perfect human being.

“As long as we have no perfect human, we will have no perfect justice system.”

However, she said there are steps we can take to reduce the possibilities of wrongful convictions — for example, the way police lineups are handled.

She hopes the book will also raise awareness about witnesses.

“Juries put a lot of stock in them — moreso that what they should,” she said.

The book raises questions about judges’ training, too, and whether they should have experience in criminal law before handling criminal cases from the bench.

“It can have a bearing in criminal cases,” she said. “(Judges) are a big part of the justice system.”

In 2003, the province announced it would conduct a public inquiry into alleged miscarriages of justice in the cases of Dalton, Druken and Parsons.

Three years later, Justice Antonio Lamer concluded the provincial Crown’s office too often accepted and supported police investigations that were plagued by “tunnel vision,” and said the court should have acted sooner on Dalton’s file.

Parsons received a $1.3-million settlement for having been wrongfully convicted of the 1991 death of his mother, and Druken was given $2 million by the province for being wrongfully convicted in the 1993 murder of his girlfriend.

In 2007, Dalton was given $750,000 in compensation.

In 2006, both the provincial government and the chief justice of Newfoundland and Labrador’s highest court issued formal apologies to Dalton for the miscarriage of justice.

But Dalton’s life was changed forever.

And Katz hopes that’s what people will realize after reading the book.

The heart of the book is reflected in its dedication, in which Katz writes, “To the men and women whose lives have been stolen from them by wrongful convictions, and to the dedicated and passionate people who work tirelessly to free them.”

rgillingham@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Atlantic Institution, Newfoundland Court, Dundurn Press Montreal Gazette Famous Canadian Manhunt

Geographic location: Canada, Gander, Renous Toronto Northwest Territories Nova Scotia Ottawa Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Karen Vander Molen
    August 07, 2011 - 18:16

    Thank you for shedding light on this dark aspect of our criminal "justice" system. I imagine that here in the U.S. we have even more cases than anyone imagines. Between incompetent counsel, malicious prosecutions, withholding/falsifying evidence, shaky eye-witness accounts, rigged line-ups, and falsely interpreted or undeveloped forensic evidence and the pressure to convict someone/anyone of a crime, our system has morphed into a shadow of its original intent. Why isn't there a fast track system of dealing with those who are incarcerated falsely? I know of a case of a man who was on Death Row for 19 years and has been in a maximum security prison for 8 more where the key "eye-witness" has recanted his testimony and all evidence points to someone else as the perpetrator of the crime. Thank God he wasn't executed before his innocence has been recognized by the state (which I pray will happen within the next year). Another man was convicted of murder based on faulty arson forensics that the world's top expert has refuted. The original arson investigators just did not know what they were doing, which has now been brought to light by actual scientific analysis of fire. 20 years later, he awaits the court system to recognize the truth. Wrongful convictions desperately need to be dealt with by the system to right what may be one of the most egregious wrongs one can do to another human - convicting them of something they did not do and taking away their right to life and liberty. We need to look at accountability of police, prosecution, judges, etc. to address situations where there is calculated breaking of the laws that they have sworn to uphold. That should never be tolerated in any way.

  • Jim Bennett
    August 07, 2011 - 05:45

    For all those people who support capital punishment, how would we correct wrongful murder convictions if we have already executed an innocent person?

  • Central gal
    August 06, 2011 - 19:33

    Its nice to know that somebody actually took the time out to write about and think about these poor people whose lives were permanently changed forever because of perhaps a few hotheads who wanted unsolved cases solved/closed!!! Breaks my heart to know that this is still going on you'd think that today with all the technology out there that innocent people wouln't be charged with crimes they didn't commit but unfortunately its still happening...

  • Harlee
    August 06, 2011 - 09:22

    Are the people involved in these wrong decisions held accountable?

    • Helena Katz
      August 06, 2011 - 13:55

      Unfortunately, there seems to be a reluctance to hold people involved in these wrongful convictions accountable for their actions. Jason Dix did manage to win a civil suit against the police and prosecution in Alberta. In his ruling, the judge referred to the people involved as being "cloaked in malice." But there were no other sanctions against those involved. Part of the question is at what point have justice officials crossed the line from honest mistake. The more we discuss/debate these things publicly, the more likely we are to draw attention to the issue and, perhaps, bring about positive change.