This week we welcome Attorney Joan McEwen, who tells us the story of Ivan Henry.
“BURNED: THE SAGA OF IVAN HENRY”
Tracking one man’s beating by the Canadian justice system, this book tells the true story of Ivan Henry’s fight to prove his innocence. Convicted in 1983 of 10 sex crimes, thereafter sentenced indefinitely as a dangerous offender, Henry—an import to B.C. from Manitoba—served 27 years before being released in January 2009. Why was he subsequently acquitted by the B.C. Court of Appeal? A Special Prosecutor reported that rapes involving an MO similar to the “Henry crimes” continued after his incarceration—in the very same Vancouver neighbourhoods.
Indeed, 20 years after the fact, a DNA match was made between a man called Donald James McRae and three of the rapes that took place after Henry was in custody—the only three (out of as many as fifty) where recoverable spermatozoa had been found.
Though Henry was originally charged with 17 sexual assaults, no physical evidence was ever found linking him to any of those crimes; a number of police witnesses almost certainly committed perjury; and the Crown went to extraordinary, and improper, measures to convict.
Now sixty-six years old, Henry lives in his daughter’s basement suite in North Vancouver. Working at the odd job from time to time, he is essentially penniless. After waiting in vain for the government to provide him with a fair compensation package, he filed a lawsuit. As the highpriced legal team representing the defendants debate the finer points of law, Henry is forced to defend accusations that, because he represented himself at trial, he is, at least in part, responsible for his downfall.
Wrongful convictions are a fact of life. In some cases, the police rush to judgment; in others, misidentifications occur, or the state cuts corners in the belief that the end justifies the means. “False confessions” occur—either because the accused is ill-educated and/or mentally challenged, or because he or she buys the argument that pleading guilty will net a lighter sentence.
When a person is declared to have been wrongly convicted, it is invariably because the Crown failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Never in Canada has a court found a wrongly convicted person to be factually innocent. And so it is with Henry.
The goal of my book—currently being sent out to prospective agents and publishers—is twofold:
- 1. To prove in the court of public opinion that Henry is not just “not guilty”, but factually innocent;
- 2. To bring public pressure to bear on the defendants such that Henry will receive fair and reasonable compensation as soon as possible.
Called to the bar in 1978, Joan McEwen practiced labour law until becoming a labour arbitrator in 1990. In the years that followed, she had time to explore two long-neglected passions: writing and volunteering in the long-term inmate community. Between 2006 and 2011, she wrote two novels—unfinished, but “promising”; located in the proverbial bottom drawer.
In considering topics for her second novel, she decided to “write about what she most feared”, namely the loss of freedom experienced by inmates. So visceral was her fear that it kept her from pursuing a career as a criminal lawyer. Why? Because she could not bear the thought of a client being sent to jail.
Having spent three years immersed in prison culture—tours of B.C.’s federal jails; countless interviews with inmates and parolees, guards and parole officers; helping veteran (volunteer) teacher Ed Griffin teach creative writing in Matsqui Institution, every Friday morning for eight months—she was instantly intrigued by what she saw on TV in October 2010: the calm, almost cheerful, image of Ivan Henry the day he was acquitted.
After trying for months to track him down, she did. According to Joan, every day of the past two years has been more shocking than the last. The day they met, Henry said, “Yous lawyers should be ashamed of yourselves for what the justice system’s put me through.”
No truer words were ever spoken.
If you’d like more information or you’d like to be put on a list for when the book is published, put your name and email in the comments and I’ll pass them on to Joan.