What It's Like to be Wrongfully Convicted of Murder

Ron Dalton spent about a decade in prison before going to court in shackles and walking out a free man. This is his story.

by Cassie Aylward
22 October 2016, 2:09pm

Photo via Pixabay

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada

When Ron Dalton was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in the death of his wife in 1988, his youngest son was still a baby and his oldest was 11 years old. By the time he won an appeal and was released from prison to await a retrial in 1998 his youngest boy had turned 11 and his oldest was in university.

"My daughter had just finished kindergarten the year her mother passed away and I made her [high school] graduation by a couple of hours," he said of the second of his three children. "There's quite an abrupt change."

Missing 10 years of his children's lives, he says, was the most difficult part of readjusting to life after his wrongful conviction, but hardly the only difficult part. He was released with a decade-plus gap in his resume, no government compensation, and a reputation built by years of saturated local news coverage.

Dalton, a then 32-year-old bank manager living in Gander, Newfoundland, was sentenced to life in prison in 1989 when his wife, Brenda Dalton, died after choking on a piece of dry cereal. It was close to midnight and the only person staffing the emergency room at the small, local hospital in Gander, according to Dalton, was young and relatively inexperienced. Attempts to resuscitate her failed, and Brenda died at 31 years old.

"They performed an autopsy, found some marks on the inside of her throat," Dalton says. "The local hospital pathologist, no forensic training and no experiences in doing forensic cases, thought he had a homicide on his hands and left the autopsy room and [they] came to my house and arrested me."

A year later, the prosecution and jury believing bruising on Brenda's throat was from manual strangulation, Dalton was convicted in his wife's death. Facing the grim prospect of life in a maximum-security prison in New Brunswick, he began the lengthy process of trying to find a lawyer with the willingness and time to take on his case.

"Two or three years in, one of the lawyers wrote me and told me he was having a difficult time finding the time to work on my case. He just kind of dropped it. A second lawyer picked it up and sat on it for another two or three years," he said. "I was seven, seven-and-a-half years in on my sentence before I found a lawyer who would actually roll up his sleeves and do the appeal."

He won his appeal and was released on bail in 1998, but it wouldn't be until 2000 that he was acquitted of any wrongdoing in connection with his wife's death. Dalton walked out of the courtroom, left to his own devices to re-enter normal life. When a person completes a prison sentence and is released, there's a slower, guided release back into the community, Dalton says. They can move from maximum to medium or minimum-security facilities, and then to halfway houses, before going back home but when a conviction is overturned, that's not the case.

"The system provides absolutely nothing," he says. "I went into court in shackles, a body belt, and handcuffs and walked out on my own."

The most jarring part of that, he says, was reintegrating into family life and playing the role of parent again, something he hadn't done for a decade. His children went to Prince Edward Island to live with his sister and brother-in-law, who'd effectively become their parents. He remembers being in the room when his youngest son told his guardians and his father he was in need of new hockey equipment. Dalton's brother-in-law was discussing whether to buy the boy new equipment or give him a hand-me-down from one of his cousins. "I wasn't in the position to offer him a new pair," he said. "It kind of felt like a parental decision... he was still doing the parenting."

Photo of Ron Dalton courtesy of Innocence Canada

He wasn't in a position to buy his son new hockey equipment because he hadn't yet been able to find work. When he started bringing his resume around, Dalton found he'd missed years of technological advancement. The banking business had completely changed while he was in prison and he'd never been exposed to it, even as a client. The other issue came from the amount of exposure his case had gotten on the East Coast. When a car dealership looking for a business manager told him they felt he was overqualified for the job, he said he'd happily accept something beneath his experience.

"He said, 'Quite frankly you're just too recognizable for us to have you. We'd love to have you. You've got the experience and stuff, the financial background,'" Dalton says. "But he said, 'Given the exposure you've had in public we don't think it's going to be a good fit.' You have to accept some of that. It's not fair but that's reality."

The news coverage the Dalton case received in Newfoundland meant plenty of people there would notice him when he was out in public. He was approached by people he'd never met who were convinced they went to high school together, by people asking him where they'd seen him before, and by people who knew exactly who he was and his story.

"I have these little old ladies who come up to me in the grocery mart or in Tim Hortons and want to give you a hug and say, 'That's terrible what you went through, my dear,' but you also get the long, sly looks and the people you suspect are thinking there's that guy who got away with killing his wife," Dalton says. "I'm not so naïve to think that everyone is sympathetic or that everyone understands the process."

After years of civil proceedings, Dalton received $750,000 in government compensation, but not every wrongfully convicted person sees any kind of payment. Romeo Phillion, for example, spent 31 years in prison in the stabbing death of an Ottawa firefighter. After his conviction was overturned he was able to sue the Ontario government for $14 million. But he died penniless in November 2010, only five years after his release and only months after the courts deemed he would be allowed to sue in the first place.

After his release, Dalton started volunteering with Innocence Canada, eventually becoming the organization's co-president. The group wants to see the justice system reformed to include a mechanism for properly compensating those it wrongfully convicts. A major roadblock to that, he says, is that the justice system was never really designed to make mistakes in the first place. Proving a negative, that you didn't do something is often more difficult than proving someone did do something. It's even more difficult to do so when there's no DNA evidence to tie the crime to someone else.

"People sleep better at night thinking they got it right," Dalton says. In what's arguably Canada's most well-known wrongful conviction case, David Milgaard was let out of prison after evidence connected Larry Fisher to the sexual assault and murder of Gail Miller after Milgaard had spent 23 years behind bars. Fisher would later be convicted of several other assaults that happened while Milgaard was serving his sentence. "People don't like to think that they played a role in that type of a thing of course. It's difficult to deal with. But ... the obvious thing to me, of course, is that the criminal justice system is made up of human beings and human beings are fallible."

Dalton says there are some signs of looming progress on justice reform. After Justin Trudeau's Liberals were elected last October, Innocence Canada had its first ever meeting with a federal Canadian justice minister. There, Dalton says they spent more than 40 minutes with the minister, making its case for reform and for public funding for the non-profit organization. But that, Dalton says, was ultimately just a meeting. "We're always cautiously optimistic that a new government will do better than the old ones, but the reality is that all governments, including the newest one, have a lot on their plate. Criminal justice reform is not always at the top of the agenda," he says.

Innocence Canada is currently working on nearly 100 cases. It's helped exonerate 25 people and has yet to take on a losing case. Dalton says he hopes the stories of those people, along with his, shed some light on what it's like to be imprisoned for something you didn't do.

"It's never really over. I lost a dozen years of my life. My children lost a dozen years of having their father around, having already lost their mother the previous year. The effects are always still there but people have no idea. They think if you've been released and you've finally been acquitted and the record's been set straight and that's it. Everything is over, but that's not the case."

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