Wrong man, yet again?

The list of alleged wrongful convictions tied to attorney grows

Frank Ostrowski Sr. and George Dangerfield

Frank Ostrowski Sr. and George Dangerfield

Frank Ostrowski Jr. will never forget the night he awoke to find a 12-gauge shotgun pointed at his face. He was 12. Minutes earlier, he and his eight-year-old sister Amber had been asleep in their home in Winnipeg’s middle-class North Kildonan neighbourhood. The man holding the gun was a cop, there to arrest his dad, Frank Sr., for the first-degree murder of Robert Nieman. For Frank Jr.—now a trucker living in Calgary with his wife and two kids—life as he knew it ended then. Within a day, “95 per cent” of his friends were gone. His grades plummeted. Alone, his mom could never make ends meet, and for the rest of his childhood, two to three times a week, he and Amber made the hour-long round trip to Stony Mountain Penitentiary to visit their dad.

Last month, after 23 years behind bars, his father—who always vigorously maintained his innocence—applied for bail. A federal investigation has determined there is a “reasonable basis” to conclude a miscarriage of justice “likely occurred.” Grave allegations have come to light that police and prosecutors concealed the fact that a witness who perjured himself at Ostrowski’s trial was given a deal in return for his testimony. The case has been reopened, and a scathing brief filed by Toronto lawyer James Lockyer further alleges that tainted evidence was used to convict his client.

Ostrowski, it seems, may join a growing list of wrongful convictions tied to George Dangerfield, the prosecutor in question and once the most storied Crown attorney in Manitoba. If his conviction is overturned, some in Winnipeg’s tightly knit legal community believe the city could become Canada’s wrongful conviction capital and Dangerfield, now retired and living in Vancouver, the Crown with the most quashed murder convictions to his name.

Dangerfield was a tall, distinguished prosecutor with piercing blue eyes, a quick wit and a “great, believable presence,” says criminal lawyer Hersh Wolch. He was also a Renaissance man: he took painting lessons at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, had done legal training in Britain, at the time a rarity in the Peg, and played a bit part in the film Capote. He was a courthouse favourite, deeply admired by police, the judiciary, even the defence.

But recently, two men Dangerfield helped convict of murder—Thomas Sophonow and James Driskell—have had their convictions overturned (costing taxpayers $6.6 million in compensation). A third, Kyle Unger, is on his way to establishing that he, too, was wrongly convicted. And now, Ostrowski. The sheer number is without legal precedent, says David Deutscher, who teaches criminal law at the University of Manitoba. If the 60-year-old Ostrowski is found to have been wrongly convicted, he could be the priciest mistake to date: he’s been in jail as long as David Milgaard, who was awarded $10 million.

In 1986, Ostrowski—who turned to selling drugs, he says, to support his family after his clutch of small businesses tanked—was charged with having ordered the murder of Nieman, a police informant. In his trial, the Crown hung its case on Matthew Lovelace, a 26-year-old cocaine mule who repeatedly told the jury he had sought nothing in return for testimony, and simply wanted to “stop any further criminal activity from happening.”

Lockyer calls this a bald-faced lie, citing a 1986 federal Crown memo that outlined how Lovelace’s trafficking charges would be stayed if he “comes thru with the goodies.” Lovelace’s wife, recently interviewed by a private investigator hired by Ostrowski’s counsel, said he knew his criminal charges would be dropped thanks to his co-operation with police, which he’d dubbed “my ticket out.” Indeed they were, a month after Ostrowski’s appeal was heard. Other new evidence includes a damning police report, not disclosed to the defence, that directly contradicted crucial Crown evidence, and a new witness who not only contradicts Crown testimony but names a new, more plausible suspect in Nieman’s slaying.

A pattern links the four cases, says Deutscher: failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, secret deals to drop charges in return for testimony, and reliance on unsavoury witnesses. But while Dangerfield may be in murky ethical territory, when it comes to non-disclosure he likely didn’t break the law, says Deutscher. Three of the four cases happened before a 1991 Supreme Court ruling established that all relevant evidence in the hands of the Crown must be disclosed to the accused. Lockyer, though, is further alleging the Crown (legally bound not to put witnesses on the stand if it knows they aren’t telling the truth) knowingly allowed a key witness to lie under oath “with impunity”—an episode, he adds, “unworthy of our criminal justice system.”

Manitoba has now opened external reviews in all of Dangerfield’s cases where a claim of “prosecutorial misconduct” is made, says assistant deputy attorney general Don Slough. Indeed, the Justice Department’s steadfast defence of Dangerfield appears, finally, to be cracking. “It’s hard to balance these findings with the person you knew,” says Slough, who worked with Dangerfield for 20 years, his voice thick with emotion.

“Never” was there a case where Dangerfield “deliberately tried to convict someone he believed to be innocent,” says Wolch. And yet a number of innocent people were convicted. “Is George a bad guy? No. Did he cause tremendous damage? Yes.”

Wrong man, yet again?

  1. But recently, two men Dangerfield helped convict of murder—Thomas Sophonow and James Driskell—have had their convictions overturned (costing taxpayers $6.6 million in compensation).

    The "cost" is far worse than 6.6 million. The cost is that these two innocent men (and their loved ones) had their lives ruined in our name.

  2. The cost is even higher. The innocent were unjustly punished and the guilty have escaped punishment.

  3. There is a hint of malice and maybe conspiracy on behalf of Mr Dangerfield in this article. Let's be fair to Mr Dangerfield. He was just doing his job and doing it well. Law enforcement brought him accused criminals and he prosecuted and convicted them.

    Some of them may have been "wrongfully convicted", but Mr Dangerfield is not the first or the only prosecuter to convict an innocent man believing him to be guilty. That doesn't automatically mean he acted with malice.

    At least one of the men mentioned in the article (Kyle Unger) may have his conviction overturned, but that doesn't mean his is innocent. Mr Unger freely confessed to the crime and was implicated by his co-convicted partner, who unfortunately is deceased and can't speak about the crime now. Unger may go free because of flimsy evidence, but I have not an iota of doubt that he is guilty. Mr Dangerfield did a great job of convicting him with so little evidence. Unfortunately, the passage of time and the passing of Unger's co-convicted conspire to let a murderer go free.

  4. Public prosecutor should be routinely checked for pattern in the cases. Many prosecutors feel they are gods and exersice their power to convict innocent people.
    Its the fault in the justice system where the convictions are more valued than to find the truth.
    God help the innocent.

  5. Today, Kyle Unger was acquitted. Acquiited. It was found not only that the hair sample was not his, but the police and the prosecution engaged in knowing misconduct. To repeat, they knew that they were perpetuating a lie. It has been acknowledged the so called confession was a police and prosecution creation. In short, they engaged in dishonest activity to create evidence because they had none. In the real world we call this a conspiracy Mr. Dangerfield both ignored and withheld evidence of innocence, meaning he falsely imprisoned someone innocent and let a real murderer go free, both actions deserving condemnation. And we find this man has a pattern of this behavior. What more evidence do you need? If you cannot be convinced by all that has happened that a great wrong has occurred either you are a sycophant or an idiot. I hope you are the latter.

  6. Malice is when exculpatory evidence is withheld. Malice is when your witness is lying and you know it.

  7. that is what happened in the Ostrowski case. Malice.

  8. Mr. Dangerfield was neither doing his job nor doing it well. His job was to make the decision not to put on the stand people who the system knew might be lying. His job was to place all evidence before the court, an ethical responsibility before 1991 and a legal responsibility after that. His job was to let the court know when a witness had received a benefit for his testimony. Doing the job well would have entailed learning abut hair analysis and presenting it fairly to the court. Doing his job well would have included doing a bit of thinking and realizing the limits of the "Mr. Big" scenario.

    The public needs to know what happened here. Maybe this was a guy out for his career at the expense of putting wrongfully convicted people in jail. Maybe this was a guy who liked to be liked and was not willing to be the "bad guy" who made unpopular decisions, an emotional person in a job that required clear thinking. Maybe the Manitoba government lacked the basic education on ethics and fairness that might have led someone to question all this skullduggery. Maybe there was a hiring mistake, a committee that did not consider ethics before promoting the wrong person. Whatever, the Manitoba government needs to reassure the public that the system has done something effective to decrease the chance that such laxity will happen again.

    • You just have to look at what political party was in control at the time

  9. I see the same pattern being reported in the States, where prosecutors, in their quest for successful convictions, are increasingly playing a dangerous game with plea-bargains, coerced or bribed witnesses and sometimes outright chicanery.

    The question is: will those responsible be held accountable? If Dangerfield is found to have been persistently breaking the ethical and procedural rules of our justice system, what will be the result for him? Only by holding these prosecutors to account will we clean this up.

    For myself, I found nothing so offensive as the idea of an innocent man being locked up for 25 years.

  10. Since my next door neighbour was Unger's co-convicted, I am closer to this case than many people. I have no doubt in my mind that Unger is guilty. There is no evidence that Dangerfield withheld evidence, or manufactured evidence. One of the problems he faced was that the crime scene did not lend itself to the collection of forensic evidence. The hair in question was evaluated by the experts at the time and concluded to be from Unger. There was no impropriety on the part of Dangerfield. There was no misconduct by the police. They knew (just as I do) that Unger was guilty, and only a confession would convict him. They tricked him into confessing, which is a legitimate law enforcement technique. That makes Unger different than other "wrongfully convicted" like David Milgaard. Milgaard and others never confessed to the crime they were accused of, and maintained their innocence throughout. Unger freely confessed, and only recanted when he realized he had been caught.
    To reiterate, Dangerfield & the police never ignored or witheld evidence, nor did they commit any acts of misconduct.

  11. Good point,

  12. I knew the Ostrowski family for many years as Frank Junior was a close friend of my younger brother. Shame on you Mr. Dangerfield. The family was outcast by many in our neighbourhood after Frank Senior's arrest. If he is found innocent 10 million is peanuts for destroying 4 lives…..

    • How about we lock Mr Dangerfield up for 20 – 30 years in general population.

  13. They should hold a trial for the whole corrupt manitoba legal system. The people who appointed dangerfield and

    the "BONDAGE" judge , and other fine upstanding judiciary figures , have to be held responsible for "ALL" criminal activites of these people. P.S. Put an honest person in charge of this trial/ inquest.

  14. Did the police officers receive promotions (hefty pay raises) in return for fabricating evidence for "shyster" dangerfield. If so, they are just as guilty . They should be fired , prosecuted foir perjury and sued by the victims of their crimes.

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