WINDSOR, Ont. – An Ottawa man who languished behind bars for more than three decades on a wrongful murder conviction is seeking millions of dollars in compensation from the institutions he believes were behind his ordeal.
Lawyers for Romeo Phillion announced the 73-year-old was launching a lawsuit on Thursday in an effort to gain some compensation for his incarceration.
The $14 million lawsuit names the Ontario Attorney General, the Ottawa Police Services Board and two former police officers as defendants.
Phillion’s co-counsel David Robins alleged the targets of the suit collaborated to suppress key evidence, which resulted in Phillion’s prolonged stay in prison.
The substantial damages, Robins added, would provide only partial relief for his elderly client.
“No amount of monetary compensation is going to turn back the hands of time and necessarily correct the wrong that was caused to Mr. Phillion and the miscarriage of justice that he suffered,” Robins said in a telephone interview.
“But our hope is that if we’re successful in the lawsuit and we’re able to recover a substantial sum of money for Mr. Phillion, that it will allow him to live the balance of his life in some level of comfort.”
Phillion’s legal saga began in 1967 when Ottawa firefighter Leopold Roy was stabbed to death. Phillion himself was several hundred kilometres away in Trenton, Ont. at the time, a fact established in a police report compiled months after Roy was killed.
Phillion was dropped as a suspect in the investigation, but resurfaced in 1971 when he was arrested on an unrelated robbery charge. While in police custody, Robins said Phillion confessed to Roy’s murder only to retract his statement mere hours later.
Phillion’s lawsuit alleges police immediately began manipulating witnesses to corroborate Phillion’s confession and made no mention of the earlier evidence that would have cleared his name.
“The investigating officers were aware of the report that was prepared by their colleague with the Ottawa Police Service confirming that Mr. Phillion was not in the Ottawa area and was no longer a suspect in the Roy murder,” Robins said.
“And notwithstanding that, they proceeded with the investigation based on Mr. Phillion’s confession and to obtain witness statements, some of which were wholly inconsistent with prior statements they had given.”
Phillion was ultimately found guilty in 1972 and sentenced to life in prison. He remained unaware of the key report until 1998, when Robins said he received it among other documents related to his case.
Once it surfaced, the report became the basis for Phillion’s quest to have his conviction overturned. A judge agreed to release him on bail in 2003, 31 years after his guilty verdict was handed down.
The Ontario Court of Appeal eventually quashed his conviction in 2009 and ordered a new trial. Prosecutors ultimately dismissed the new charges, saying there was no possibility of a conviction.
Robins said the latest lawsuit is an effort to hold the province and the Ottawa police force accountable for their role in suppressing the report that would have exonerated Phillion.
The allegations contained in the lawsuit have not been proven in court and no statement of defence has been filed.
Ministry of the Attorney General spokesman Brendan Crawley said the province received word of the suit on April 30.
“We will defend the claim. As this matter is subject to litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further,” Crawley wrote in an email.
Ottawa Police Board chair Eli El-Chantiry said the organization has not yet been formally notified of the suit and cannot offer any further comment.
_ By Michelle McQuigge in Toronto