Wrongful Conviction

Wrongful Conviction Day 2019 with O'Neil Blackett

A Story of Resilience

Jessica Singer

In 1999, O’Neil Blackett was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit.

After being imprisoned and trying to clear his name, Blackett was exonerated one year ago on Wrongful Conviction Day.    

Each year, Innocence Groups and other organizations worldwide undertake activities to raise awareness about the nuances of wrongful convictions.

On Thursday October 3, Western University participated in International Wrongful Conviction Day with a speech from O’Neil Blackett, who told his story, and spoke to students about wrongful conviction and its effects on individuals and society.

The school partners with Innocence Canada, a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for, identifying, and exonerating individuals convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.

On the 5th Anniversary of International Wrongful Conviction Day, Innocence Canada client O’Neil Blackett was the 22nd person whose name the organization helped clear.

Blackett was arrested for murdering his friend’s daughter, a 13-month-old named Tamara, who passed away while he was babysitting her.

“At that time, you know, I was just finished college, like any of you individuals in here”, said Blackett during his speech.

“Life was good at the time before the incident. I was an average kid; I liked to play sports, watch movies, hang out with friends”.

But Blackett was another victim of the now disgraced and unlicensed paediatric pathologist Charles Smith.

Charles Smith, a previously revered pathologist, conducted an autopsy and concluded that the child could not have died of natural causes, but either from strangulation or blunt force.

But this was an abuse of power on part of Charles Smith.

Blackett explained to students that he only knew the child for a short period of time. The child sustained previous injuries and illnesses before he knew her.

“When Dr. Charles Smith got involved, he said the child could not die from vomiting, which is nonsense, because countless other pathologists disagreed”, said Blackett.

In 2005, Chief Coroner for Ontario Dr. Barry McLellan reviewed Charles Smith’s work across numerous cases. There was concern about Smith’s competence in his profession, in cases dating back as far as 1991.

Blackett explained that he wasn’t the only person affected by Charles Smith’s abuse of power. Around 100 cases were covered and 33 were of concern, including Blackett’s.

Dr. Christopher Milroy, former Chief Forensic Pathologist of the Department of Forensic Pathology and Legal Medicine reviewed this case and rejected Smith’s conclusion concerning the cause of the child’s death.

In May of 2017, a new trial was ordered on O’Neil’s charge of manslaughter, and he was eventually exonerated for the crime on October 2, 2018.

But 17 years was a long, painful wait.

O’Neil explained how he always maintained he did not cause the death of the child, but accepted a manslaughter plea in fear of being convicted of murder.

“If I was an individual on the other side, I too would think I did it”, said Blackett.

His story and evidence were twisted and manipulated. Blackett was framed as a monster, a “big scary man” capable of murdering a small child.

Blackett explained how Charles Smith’s abuse of power and privilege, and race were inexcusable factors in his case.   

According to Innocence Canada, research has shown that race plays a significant role in wrongful convictions.

There are power structures in place that work against people of colour and determine an individual’s place in society within the intersections of both class and race.   

“You see what goes on every day. We have social media. You see a lot of injustice. It can happen to anybody…Sometimes people over abuse their privileges”, explained Blackett.

Irrespective of the crime, when a person experiences a wrongful conviction, this is a severe blow to the Canadian justice system.

“Even if you go to court and you don’t have a proper lawyer, that’s what you’re getting”, clarified Blackett.

“Why is it that a legal aid lawyer is free, and he can still go there and represent you, while someone else is $10,000…he can do the same job as the legal aid lawyer, but who has more respect?”

After being released, O’Neil found life difficult, especially when it came time to look for employment.  

He explained to students that it was difficult to apply for a job when he had to constantly explain a charge he didn’t commit.

“It’s hard not to think about how people think about you, how they perceive you”.

But he always stayed resilient.

Blackett explained how he was always liked by friends and family. Members of his community knew his true character; he was always the one to break up fights, the life of the party, and had many skills and experiences to offer to future employers.

“I’m like you know what? I’m a good person, and the people that I’m around and that I see, I don’t feel any resentment towards, and they treat me the same”, said Blackett. “I just try to move on with my life and be productive in society, that’s all I’m trying to do”.

The vigilance and courage it takes to educate students about wrongful convictions by telling his story is commendable.   

And the perfect way to celebrate his exoneration, which occurred one year ago on Wrongful Conviction Day.

 

There are universities across Canada where students can sign up to volunteer with Innocence Canada. If you would like to learn more about this organization and ways to get involved, visit www.innocencecanada.com.