28 C
Prince Albert
Saturday, July 20, 2024
Home News Residential school to prison cell: Private investigator says the facts don’t add up in murder conviction of two Sask. sisters

Residential school to prison cell: Private investigator says the facts don’t add up in murder conviction of two Sask. sisters

Residential school to prison cell: Private investigator says the facts don’t add up in murder conviction of two Sask. sisters
Odelia Quewezance (top left), private investigator Jolene Johnson (top right), Senator Kim Pate (bottom left) and CAP vice chief Kim Beaudin. (Screenshots and submitted photos)

Warning: This story contains details that can be upsetting to readers

A private investigator is calling the conviction of two Saulteaux sisters for the 1993 brutal murder of 70-year-old farmer Anthony Joseph Dolff a “miscarriage of justice.”

Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance both received sentences in 1994 for murder but say that they are innocent. Court records reviewed by the Herald show Dolff was stabbed 17 times, twice in the heart, at his farmhouse in the Kamsack area nearby Keeseekoose First Nation. His head was also smashed with a television.  

Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti. (Sebastiaan ter Burg/Creative Commons Global Summit)

The Prince Albert Daily Herald spoke with Jolene Johnson, a private investigator in Alberta who studied the case while Odelia was in Edmonton, reviewed court transcripts and believes the sisters are innocent. 

Johnson called it a “miscarriage of justice” saying although the sisters had told police that they killed Dolff they did so while under duress and there was no physical evidence linking them to the murder.

“I believe that the Minister of Justice David Lametti should immediately sign a ministerial order, releasing Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance and quashing their convictions in the Dolff murder case — because they were innocent,” Johnson said. 

“Anything less than quashing their convictions is also a miscarriage of justice.”

Odelia said she was at Dolff’s farm with her sister Nerissa when they found an envelope containing a sum of money and took it. They left the farmhouse with Dolff at which point he realized that his money was missing and so they returned. 

That’s when Odelia said Dolff began assaulting her younger sister and demanding sex. Odelia said she pushed Dolff away as she was trying to protect her sister.

Their cousin Jason Keshane claimed responsibility for the murder and reiterated his guilt in a 2020 interview with APTN.  

Odelia said she was in another room with Nerissa when Keshane, who was 14 years old at the time, killed Dolff. Nerissa was 19 and Odelia was 21 at the time.

Both women had also attended the residential school where Dolff worked. 

After their arrest police kept the sisters at the RCMP detachment in Kamsack despite a remand order for the women to be transferred to Pinegrove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert. 

A lawyer had advised police that the sisters did not want to make statements and were exercising their right to consult with a lawyer.

Johnson said police kept them there anyway, “badgered” them for statements and implied they could see their grandfather if they admitted to the brutal crime. 

Kamsack RCMP detachment. (Screenshot from Google maps)

“Odelia was under duress. It was indicated in the transcripts in the judge’s decision that just because they were given advice to exercise counsel — it was their choice to make statements. I would say the judge erred in that in that decision,” Johnson said. 

“They basically browbeat them. You have two young girls that really didn’t know what to do. They’re Indigenous… It was a given in that community that you do whatever (police) say because otherwise you can end up dead. It was very common in that community and the fear was very real. They were saying what the RCMP wanted them to say.”

Court transcripts show that there was also discussion around the accused’s ability to confess or accurately remember events at the time as they had taken prescription medication mixed with alcohol.

Johnson suspects the sisters were convicted in part because there had been a series of crimes involving Indigenous minors in the area who would only serve partial sentences. 

So there was likely “pressure” on the police and courts to go after the two adults instead of their cousin, she said. 

She said police did not conduct a proper investigation and were more interested in wrapping up the case than in finding out who really did it.

“In a nutshell, there was no justice. The police didn’t follow their own mandate and they didn’t care who was responsible, as long as somebody was held responsible. At the time there were three or four murders done by groups of young Indigenous people,” Johnson said. 

“They were looking to pin it on an adult. Because it wouldn’t have looked good to the community, to the white population, that they were going after all these minors.

“I think they weren’t concerned about getting the right person. They were only concerned about getting somebody, because you have a community that was in panic mode.” 

Johnson said the racially divided community where the murder happened didn’t help and there were no Indigenous people on the jury.

Kamsack is a town in the Assiniboine River Valley about 56 kilometres northeast of Yorkton. (Town of Kamsack/Facebook)

“I think it speaks volumes, because quite honestly, you have a lot of racial motivated people in that community. For whatever reasons you had a lot of that going on there,” she said.

“Our whole judicial system is supposed to be about providing an unbiased jury of your peers. They didn’t have that in this situation.”

Johnson said regardless of the sisters being Indigenous the facts of the case simply don’t meet the standards for a murder conviction. 

“It’s not about being sympathetic because somebody is Indigenous. Regardless of the heritage the fact is that these two are innocent — regardless of their skin colour. I think that’s important.”

The body of the victim was moved by police — and no fingerprints or blood samples found at the scene were linked to Odelia or Nerissa. 

“They took pictures that were super close up that did not accurately reflect the crime scene. They contaminated the crime scene by moving items and the body,” Johnson said.

“The amount of evidence that was collected at the scene was extremely minimal compared to what you would typically see at a crime scene of such a horrific crime.

“It’s enough for reasonable doubt — which means these girls should never have been convicted. There was reasonable doubt all over this case.” 

She said Keshane only spent around two hours on the stand and had already told the police that Odelia and Nerissa didn’t do it. But she said he was afraid to be tried in adult court.

“He took a plea bargain… and he walked away from it… The person that did this admitted to doing so at the very beginning and the police didn’t listen,” Johnson said. 

Johnson said Dolff, although a victim of murder, had sexually assaulted the women.

“Keep in mind, the victim here is still a victim. Nobody should have ever taken his life whatsoever,” she said.

“That being said, there should have also been a proper investigation conducted.” 

Court of Queen’s Bench in Yorkton where the sisters were tried and convicted of second-degree murder. (Photo courtesy Courthouses.co)

Senator Kim Pate and Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) vice-chief Kim Beaudin pressured for the sisters’ release at a press conference in May. 

“The same issues that give rise to women being disappeared and murdered are the same issues that give rise to Indigenous women being the fastest growing prison population in this country,” Pate said.

“Someone else has confessed. Why there hasn’t been a review of the case is beyond me.”

The two sisters were also present at the press conference and spoke briefly. Odelia has children and a partner waiting for her at home.  

“What the system took away from me is my spirit —and to be free,” Odelia Quewezance said. 

“I pray my sister Nerissa doesn’t give up and my children don’t give up on me.”

Nerissa was wanted on a Canada-wide warrant at the time but has since been apprehended in Vancouver.

“Every day is a struggle in jail,” Nerissa Quewezance said. “27 years is a hard time.” 

Beaudin called on Lametti to release the sisters “in the spirit of reconciliation” so that they can be reunited with family and begin their healing journey. 

“They went from a residential school to a prison cell,” he said.

Department of Justice Canada spokesperson Melissa Gruber told the Prince Albert Daily Herald at the time that it would “not be appropriate for the Minister of Justice to comment.”

“The Government is committed to a fair and impartial criminal justice system that respects the needs of victims while guarding against potential miscarriages of justice,” Gruber wrote.

The Department of Justice pointed to progress on the justice file when Lametti appointed former judges Harry LaForme and Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré to lead consultations into an independent criminal case review commission in March.

Pinegrove Correctional Centre. (Bradley Ruszkowski/Daily Herald)

Emails obtained by the Prince Albert Daily Herald show Westmoreland-Traoré and LaForme approached Parole Board of Canada Chairperson Jennifer Oades in August.

“We are writing the Parole Board to ask the Board to consider releasing Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance, perhaps immediately,” the consultants wrote.

The former judges said that during recent roundtable consultations “the wrongful conviction of these two sisters” is a “theme that comes up time and time again.” 

“Through this process it has been expressed to us that the public is aware of, and appalled by, what these sisters are experiencing here in Canada; that they have been locked up for 28 years, have not seen each other for most of that time and that the person responsible for the crime they were convicted of has confessed his guilt, served his sentence, and has been released,” the consultants wrote.

“More broadly we have heard of the terrible damage that wrongful convictions do to those who have been wrongfully convicted as well as to their families and communities.”

Oades responded, explaining that the Parole Board of Canada does not have legal authority to unilaterally release individuals from prison, “other than upon application for parole or at certain reviews in an offender’s sentence as prescribed by law.”

The Parole Board of Canada told the Prince Albert Daily Herald on Friday that its position “remains the same” as that outlined in its response to the consultants.

The Department of Justice declined to comment after being shown the correspondence. 

“The Department of Justice Canada is not able to comment on the questions related to parole, and we have no additional information to provide at this time,” Gruber wrote. 

Johnson called on Lametti to issue an executive order for the release of Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance before elections come to a close on Monday.

A national 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to support survivors and those affected. You can access emotional and crisis support referral services by calling 1-866-925-4419.