The Netflix documentary Making a Murderer asks a question that has only two possible answers, both disturbing.
The documentary follows Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was convicted of sexual assault in the early 1980s and spent 18 years behind bars. He was then exonerated, released, and was on the verge of winning a major settlement when he was arrested again. This time, he was accused of murder, and was again convicted.
So the possibilities are, either a man who was exonerated of one crime went on to commit one in any case, or that the same man could be a victim of two miscarriages of justice.
It’s hard for many people to believe that police, prosecutors, judges, and juries could get things so wrong, not just once but possibly twice.
Unfortunately, while rare, wrongful convictions are far from unheard of in Canada, as well as in the United States.
Canadians have seen a string of high-profile convictions overturned. In some cases, lives were ruined in ways that are impossible to set completely right, no matter how many apologies are given, no matter how much is paid in compensation.
What could possibly be done for the family of David Milgaard?
The Saskatchewan man was still a teenager when he was convicted of raping and killing Gail Miller.
Milgaard would spend most of the next 23 years in prison. He even escaped twice – on his second attempt, he was recaptured after 77 days on the loose, and shot by the RCMP during his capture.
But Milgaard was unequivocally innocent. Later tests and evidence would show that it was Larry Fisher, a serial rapist, who had killed Miller.
At least the resolution of that case had a conclusion that could give some comfort to both Milgaard and Miller’s family. Others leave only wounds.
Guy Paul Morin spent nine years being tried and re-tried for the murder of a neighbour, nine-year-old Christine Jessop. Although the evidence against Morin was shaky to being with – his time card from work alone suggested he wasn’t around when she vanished – investigators became fixated on him. They famously thought Morin was a “weird-type guy.”
As in so many other cases, DNA evidence would eventually rule out Morin. But the true killer has never been found.
Sometimes there is no killer.
There are several families in Ontario who have seen double tragedies. First, a child died. Then one of the parents was sent to jail for a murder that never happened.
The notorious pathologist Charles Smith conducted autopsies that turned up murder where no murder existed. Fathers and mothers were sent to jail because of deaths that had resulted from freak accidents or medical problems.
The vast majority of serious criminal investigations in Canada do turn up the proper suspect. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s a cold case that is only solved years later.
But there are cases where a combination of events – fixated investigators, bad science, or simple chance – can result in an innocent person going to jail for a crime he or she did not commit.
Wrongful convictions damage the system of justice.
We can learn two things from them. First, that we are all human, and imperfect, and must beware of our own biases as much as possible.
And second, that somewhere in Canada, the innocent are behind bars.