Win Wahrer: Fearless Advocate for the Wrongly Convicted, Courageous Leader, and Distinguished Visitor

On October 26th, Robson Hall welcomed Win Wahrer as its Distinguished Visitor lecturer. Ms. Wahrer is the co-founder and Director of Client Services at Innocence Canada,1 formerly known as the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted (AIDWYC). It is a non-profit organization that works to exonerate individuals who have been wrongfully convicted.

 

At the beginning of her remarks, Wahrer mentioned the importance of paying respect to the wrongfully convicted. Wahrer has worked on wrongful convictions for 26 years and stated that “it is an honour and privilege to be involved in this work”. She encouraged the members of the audience to support the wrongfully convicted because wrongful convictions do not end with and individual being acquitted or having their charges withdrawn. There is a difference between having one’s charges stayed and being declared innocent.

 

Wahrer discussed Wrongful Conviction Day, which is now a worldwide event that continues to grow momentum. She stated that it is helpful to put wrongful conviction cases in perspective by putting a face to them. She recognized the Fifth Estate for its award winning documentaries on wrongfully convicted Canadians and played footage from a documentary about exonerated individuals including Steven Truscott, David Milgaard, and William Mullins-Johnson.2

 

Wahrer stated, “to fight to clear your name is not for the faint of heart. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to get you out,” prior to introducing the Guy Paul Morin case. She stated that she is not a lawyer and did not get involved with wrongful convictions work because she had any form of involvement with the criminal justice system. One day she read an article about Morin in a free Toronto Star newspaper. Morin had been charged with murdering his 9 year-old female neighbour. She looked at the picture of Morin and could tell that “the police had the wrong guy”. She was convinced that he was innocent. She began to read about Morin’s case, which at the time was at a second trial because the Attorney General of Ontario was appealing his not guilty verdict.

 

Wahrer followed Morin’s trial closely and remembers the moment when she learned about Morin’s conviction; she was driving on the highway and stopped when she heard about the decision on the radio. She was outraged and devastated. She felt she was called into action. She wrote letters to Morin’s appeal lawyer encouraging him to continue with the process as well as his parents to tell them that she believed that their son was not guilty. She had no idea what to expect after sending the letters.

 

Upon returning from a trip where she had forgotten the letters, Wahrer received a phone call from Morin’s mother, who thanked her for her lovely note. Wahrer met with Morin’s family the next day. Upon offering to do anything she could to help, the Morin family asked her to assist two others in putting a petition together about whether Canadians deserve to have a fair trial because, in their view,  Morin’s second trial was not fair. Wahrer and the two other petition writers all knew one thing: they felt that Morin was innocent and that they needed to do something. They formed the Justice for Guy Paul Morin Committee to educate the public about Morin’s case.

 

Reflecting on her younger self as a child, Wahrer recounted being very shy. The idea of fighting for other people seemed extraordinary. She would later find herself as an adult knocking on peoples’ doors asking them to sign her Morin petition. What gave her the strength and courage to knock on those doors was her strong belief in Morin’s innocence. Not long after, Wahrer met Morin’s lawyer, James Lockyer, who was impressed that none of the committee’s members had ever met Morin, but were willing to fight on his behalf.

 

The Morin committee planned a vigil at Toronto’s City Hall to pay tribute to Morin’s case and the lack of fairness in trials. David Milgaard’s mother attended the vigil. Peter Meier, who later became a close friend of Wahrer’s and is the former president of AIDWYC, warned her that the vigil would not go over well because the wind would blow out the candles. The vigil took place with burned out candles, only to be featured on the front page of the Toronto Star the next day.

 

Wahrer described the day where the DNA results for Morin’s case came in and it was clear that he was going to be exonerated and a free man. She described the day where Morin was released from Kingston Penitentiary and she met him up close and in person for the first time.

 

The Justice for Guy Paul Morin Committee, which became AIDWYC and then Innocence Canada, has helped with the exoneration of twenty-one individuals.3 Wahrer stated that individuals who wish to secure exoneration have to be “willing to fight no matter what the challenges and the road blocks are”. The exoneration process takes too long and people die before they can get out of prison. The Truscott case took 10 years to complete, but his exoneration came 48 years after his conviction. Systemic issues also give rise to wrongful convictions at high social costs. Wahrer noted that often times the public has made up its mind about a case but it should be aware of biased expert testimony and media. Family members of the wrongly convicted also suffer because they feel like they failed to protect their loved one.

 

Wahrer concluded her remarks by reflecting on AIDWYC’s first client, Donzel Young. Young was convicted of a double murder and was stabbed to death in prison while waiting for the minister of justice to make a decision about his wrongful conviction case. She mentioned that one would like to believe that there is no death penalty in Canada, but prison is too often a death sentence for the wrongfully convicted who do not live to be freed. She said that although individuals can be exonerated, they will all bear labels and that there is “no appeal to the court of public opinion”.

 

It is abundantly clear that Win Wahrer’s work with wrongful convictions has saved the lives of many. She brings hope to people during the darkest times of their lives and continues to provide them and their families support after their exonerations. Wahrer has had a storied career that started with her belief in another person’s innocence, coupled with her drive to stand up for and act on her belief. She has gone on to run one of the most successful advocacy groups in Canadian modern history. Win Wahrer is a true example of what it means to be a fearless advocate and courageous leader, which makes her a very fitting Robson Hall Distinguished Visitor.

 

 

Endnotes

1. Innocence Canada, “Home”, online: <https://www.aidwyc.org>.

 

2. Innocence Canada, “Wrongful Convictions in TV & Film”, online: <https://www.aidwyc.org/elibrary/television-film-and-movies-on-wrongful-convictions/>.

 

3. Innocence Canada, “Exonerations”, online: <https://www.aidwyc.org/cases/historical/>.

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