Journalists challenged to expose wrongful convictions

Melissa Wilson

The media should tone down coverage that pressures police to solve crimes and devote more effort to reporting on trials and investigating cases that result in wrongful convictions, says a founding director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

Journalists play an important role in alerting the public to a possible miscarriage of justice but coverage of investigations and demands for arrests may “lead to the police solving the crime the wrong way, especially if the investigation takes time,” says lawyer James Lockyer.

James LockyerSpeaking at a May 26 Canadian Journalism Foundation event in Toronto on the relationship between the media and wrongful convictions, he argued the media can do a better job of exposing wrongful convictions.

“There isn’t enough reporting where an individual case is taken up by a reporter and he or she spends the necessary time and devotes the necessary energy to it to try and show how the conviction was wrong.”

Journalists covering trials, he added, can better inform the public by bringing to their stories “necessary common sense, experience in legal matters and also a jaundiced eye when needed.”

Lockyer cited Robert Baltovich‘s imprisonment for murder as the “easiest possible wrongful conviction to spot.” Baltovich served nearly a decade in prison before he was retried and found not guilty.

Within days of Baltovich’s 1992 conviction, Globe and Mail reporter Thomas Claridge began writing stories challenging the validity of the conviction. Six years later Derek Finkle published a book, No Claim to Mercy, which also questioned the verdict.

Post-trial coverage such as this keeps controversial cases in the public eye, said Lockyer. “It’s after the trial that the media becomes really important.”

He also cited the case of Guy Paul Morin, whose name is often synonymous with wrongful conviction.

Morin was tried twice for the abduction and murder of his nine-year-old next-door neighbour, Christine Jessop. He was acquitted in 1986, though most people thought him guilty, Lockyer says. In the early 1990s, Globe reporter Kirk Makin published a book, Redrum the Innocent, asserting Morin’s innocence. Yet Morin was convicted of first-degree murder in 1992, by which time, Lockyer says, most people thought him innocent.

Investigative reporting costs money and in these days of layoffs and buyouts, many publications don’t have the budget to take on possible wrongful convictions.

An audience member asked Lockyer to suggest how journalists could secure the funding necessary for in-depth reporting. Lockyer chuckled and said if he knew of any grants available he’d probably snatch them up for the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, which runs on a $100,000-a-year budget.

An American professor, David Protess, he noted, harnessed the talent and enthusiasm of journalism students in 1999 and formed the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University.

The project gave students first-hand investigative experience and freed 11 innocent men convicted of murder, five of whom were on death row. Their findings prompted Illinois Governor George Ryan to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 and to grant clemency to all death row inmates in 2003. “A system that depends on young journalism students,” the governor stated, “is flawed.”

“If the students can do it,” Lockyer told his audience, “it seems to me that the media can do it as well.”

Melissa Wilson, a Toronto-based
freelance writer and former intern at This Magazine, is entering her
fourth and final year at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism.

Watch a webcast of Lockyer’s presentation in Toronto.

(Photo by Andrew Hind.)