Saturday, 3 October 2009

One man's quest for vindication

Picture: Jack White, a former counsellor for the developmentally disabled, stands outside his lawyer's office downtown. The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted is working to get his sex-assault conviction overturned.

Jack White spent nearly 25 years working with residents of a home for the developmentally disabled and his community volunteer activities earned him recognition by the federal government.

But his reputation was ruined in little more than two hours when a jury, after a 62-minute trial plus deliberations, convicted him of sexual assault in 1993.

Now, nearly 16 years later, White's little-known story is attracting the attention of Canada's premier advocacy group for the wrongly convicted, as well as a Conservative MP. They want the Supreme Court of Canada to reopen White's case, sending it to the Ontario Court of Appeal in Toronto for a rehearing.

"It is very clear a miscarriage (of justice) has occurred here and his conviction should be overturned," Bruce Stanton, MP for Simcoe North, told the Star in an interview Monday from Ottawa.

"The guy is just salt of the earth. He is an upstanding citizen. He would never hurt anybody. That's not just my opinion," Stanton added, "it is attested to in the bulk of the evidence."

Documents filed in the Supreme Court of Canada by the Toronto-based Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted suggest White, convicted of sexually assaulting a female resident at the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, was the victim of retaliation by longtime staff members and their relatives, who were angry he assisted police in the early 1990s with their investigation into the death of a resident nearly 40 years earlier and that he had co-authored a report critical of the harsh treatment of residents by several "ex-biker type" counsellors.

One counsellor wrote to the institution's administrator expressing disgust with the report and threatened White personally, according to court documents.

After being convicted, White, 64, lost his counselling position, was fired from a subsequent job as a Red Cross homemaker and couldn't make his mortgage payments.

Financial help from friends enabled him to keep a roof over his head. White has since found work as a custodian at an Orillia mall.

Pardoned by the National Parole Board three years ago, he still wants to clear his name.

"It means a lot to me to fight for this right. The allegations did not happen," White said in an interview Monday at lawyer James Lockyer's office. "It's totally against my morals."

He wanted to testify at his trial, but his lawyer, Brian Turnbull, didn't call him as a witness and made little use of material that cast doubt on the credibility of the Crown's chief witness.

A report by Toronto defence lawyer John Rosen concludes Turnbull, who had just four years' experience as a lawyer and is now deceased, deprived White of his right to effective assistance of counsel.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of White's story is that although he was not disabled, he spent 12 years as a resident at Huronia himself, starting at age 9.

After his birth, at Toronto General Hospital, he was placed with a foster family. Years later, his foster mother said authorities believed because he was hyper at school, he was incapable of learning.

White was placed in what was then known as the Ontario Hospital School in Orillia and grew up alongside residents, many with severe cognitive disabilities, whom he considered brothers and sisters.

White was released at 21, found work as a cook, and completed Grades 5 to 12. Later, on a visit to Huronia, a former attendant suggested he apply for a job.

Some longtime staff resented that a former resident was now working alongside them, White said.

In 1993, a fellow counsellor claimed that in 1989, White had fondled the breast of a resident when he was assisting her in the shower and used crude language to describe her physique.


No comments: