Sometimes the wheels of justice grind slowly. Sometimes, they move with lightning speed. Both apply to the incredibly tragic case of William Mullins-Johnson. The Sault Ste. Marie native who spent 12 years in jail for killing his niece has officially been exonerated in a Toronto courtroom.
The case goes back to 1993, when four-year-old Valin Johnson was discovered dead early one morning by grief stricken relatives. Forensic evidence appeared to show she’d been physically assaulted and strangled and the Crown used it to point the finger at her uncle. They managed to secure a first-degree murder conviction and Mullins-Johnson was sent to jail for a dozen years, all the while pleading his innocence. His was finally released in 2005 on appeal after concerns were raised about the evidence of a pathologist employed by the government.
The convicted killer finally had his day before the Ontario Court of Appeals on Monday, giving gut-wrenching testimony about that terrible morning so many years ago.
“I was sleeping on the couch,” he recalled, frequently breaking down in tears. “And the next thing I hear was Kim barreling down the stairs. She was crying, screaming. She, uh– she woke me up out of my sleeping with all that noise. And I asked her what was wrong. Then she told me that Valin was dead. I couldn’t believe my ears, and I yelled back to her, ‘What?!’ And she screamed back at me, ‘Valin’s dead!'”
When the Crown stood up and agreed there was a miscarriage of justice in the case, his vindication seemed assured. “An acquittal is really required in this case,” Crown prosecutor Ken Campbell told the three-judge panel, adding that six world-renowned experts found “no evidence of homicide and no evidence of sexual injury” to suggest Valin was sodomized and strangled. That was the initial finding of forensic pathologist Dr. Charles Smith, whose work is now the subject of an inquiry.
Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael Pollanen, testified that Smith misread the injuries used to come to the assertion that the girl had been assaulted and murdered. “The autopsy findings cannot sustain that there were any injuries to the neck or anus,” Pollanen said, adding that he could not determine a cause of death. “This was a misinterpretation at the original autopsy.”
That’s what Mullins-Johnson has maintained all along. “With every accusation, I responded back with ‘I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.'” But not many believed him.
Pollanen claims it’s too late to figure out what actually caused Valin Johnson’s death. But he’s sure it wasn’t murder.
This time, the convicted man’s vindication did not take long. The accused who had been suspected of raping and killing a young child he’d always loved and protected was fully exonerated in the afternoon, officially receiving a full apology from Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant.
“I wish to extend our sincere, profound and deepest apology to Mr. Mullins-Johnson and to his family for the miscarriage of justice that occurred in this case, and all that he has had to endure as a result,” lawyer Michal Fairburn told the vindicated man.
Mullins-Johnson notes the ordeal has torn his life apart. “It destroyed me. It ruined my name. It ruined my reputation. It ruined any opportunity I had,” he adds.
It’s not the first time a long delayed journey to justice has occurred in 2007. Earlier this year, Steven Truscott was acquitted in the killing of 12-year-old Lynne Harper in 1959. Truscott’s case, like this one, was also considered a miscarriage of justice.
Mullins-Johnson, who now lives in Peterborough, was aided in his quest for clearance by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, which helped Truscott and other prominent convicted ‘killers’, including Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin and Thomas Sophonow.
There’s no word yet on whether Mullins-Johnson will be offered compensation for his agonizing ordeal, an avenue Truscott is also pursuing.
- While a not guilty verdict is possible in retrials and appeals, there’s no provision to declare that someone wrongfully convicted is actually innocent. Ontario’s Attorney General claims that would tarnish people found not guilty, giving them a second class status.
To see unedited video of Mullins-Johnson’s emotional testimony, click here.