OTTAWA — Two Indigenous sisters who have spent nearly 30 years in prison for what they say is a wrongful murder conviction now have reason to hope their names could soon be cleared.
The Justice Department has sent a letter to the lawyer representing Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance saying there may be a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred in this matter.
The letter, from the department’s Criminal Conviction Review Group, says the matter will now proceed to the investigation stage of the conviction review process.
Once the group completes its investigation, a recommendation will be made to Justice Minister David Lametti for his consideration.
Odelia was 20 years old and Nerissa was 18 when they were arrested for the 1993 stabbing of 70-year-old farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff, near Kamsack, Sask.
Their lawyer, James Lockyer, says the sisters were present when Dolff was killed, but a person who was a youth at the time confessed to the killing and testified the sisters were not involved.
Odelia Quewezance was recently granted a brief release from prison and travelled to Ottawa on Thursday to appeal directly to justice officials and urge release for Nerissa, who remains imprisoned in British Columbia.
Lockyer filed an application with Lametti’s office in December seeking a ministerial review of the case.
He says he received the letter from the department on Thursday and now plans to file a bail application later this month or in early July.
“It’s a sign that things might be going well for them,” Lockyer says of the sisters’ reaction to the news. “It’s very exciting for them. They can start to see possible overturning of their conviction on the horizon.
“It’s really good news, and if I can get them both bail, it’s even better news.”
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples says in a release that it is “ecstatic” to learn justice may be coming for the sisters.
Kim Beaudin, national vice-chief of the congress, says it’s exciting that “after 30 years of a colossal injustice, the women are one step closer to freedom.”
“It must be fate,” Beaudin says, of the timing of the letter that reached Lockyer on the same day Odelia Quewezance made her appeal in Ottawa.
Lockyer, a Toronto-based lawyer who helped to exonerate David Milgaard in 1997 and helped found the advocacy organization Innocence Canada, has said he took on the sisters’ case because of Milgaard’s belief in their innocence.
Odelia has said Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison for a 1969 rape and murder he didn’t commit, was her “biggest supporter” and was “like a brother, an angel” to her. Milgaard died last month.
Lockyer has argued the “two young Indigenous women (were) essentially at the mercy of a whole bunch of RCMP officers for five days with no protection” and the statements they gave were “entirely unreliable.”
“Forget for a moment the miscarriage of justice at their trial, they’re still (incarcerated), 20 years after they were eligible for parole,” Lockyer said in an interview last month.
“They need to be able to live the rest of their lives as free persons.”