By Kelly Geraldine Malone
THE CANADIAN PRESS
YORKTON, Sask- Lawyers for two sisters who have spent nearly 30 years in prison for what they say are wrongful murder convictions told a bail hearing the women are victims of systemic racism in the justice system and false confessions.
Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance were convicted of second-degree murder in the 1993 stabbing death of 70-year-old Anthony Dolff near Kamsack, Sask.
The federal Justice Department started a review of the case last year, saying there may be a reasonable basis to conclude there was a miscarriage of justice. The sisters’ lawyers are arguing for their release as they wait for the outcome of the review.
Lawyer James Lockyear said the all-male police force that arrested the sisters did not follow a court order to have the women transferred to Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert, Sask., and instead housed them in police station cells for four days.
“That order was just ignored,” Lockyear said Wednesday in Court of King’s Bench in Yorkton, Sask.
He said neglecting the order demonstrates the attitudes the sisters encountered “in a police station full of white men.”
They were two young Indigenous women and their vulnerability in the situation was clear, Lockyear said.
The sisters from the Keeseekoose First Nation have always maintained their innocence. Another person, who was a youth at the time, confessed to the killing in a statement that was recorded by police, Lockyear said. The youth confessed again during a preliminary inquiry and a jury trial the following year.
Lockyear said statements the sisters allegedly made to officers over multiple days in the police cells were never recorded.
He questioned the conditions in which the women would have made the comments and referred to the well-known U.S. case of the Central Park Five, in which Black and Latino youths were exonerated after the court found false confessions led to their convictions.
Odelia Quewezance was 20 years old and her sister was 18 when the pair was arrested. Both sisters had attended residential schools in the years before, as had their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Court was told Odelia Quewezance ran away from the school after she was repeatedly sexually abused by a staff member. Lawyers said Nerissa Quewezance suffers from scoliosis linked to physical abuse as a child before her bones were fully formed, and she has arthritis from kneeling too long on the hard ground of the school.
Odelia Quewezance turned 51 on Wednesday and said that between her time in prison and residential school, she has spent most of her life confined.
“I honestly believe in my heart that it’s going to be a good outcome,” she said outside court.
“I’m praying to be free so I can live my life now.”
The sisters’ lawyers laid out Tuesday how the two women would be supported by family and community if they were to get bail.
A Crown prosecutor said the sisters should not be released as there’s too much risk and both have a history of breaching conditions.
Odelia Quewezance received day parole last year with strict conditions. She is currently staying at the YWCA in Regina. Nerissa Quewezance’s parole was denied and she has remained behind bars in Fraser Valley Institution for Women in British Columbia.
If released, Odelia Quewezance would live with her partner of 26 years and their children in a small Saskatchewan community, court heard.
Her sister is looking to stay with Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin in his Saskatoon home if she were to get a conditional release.
Beaudin told court that while he has spoken with Nerissa Quewezance many times over the phone, he could only meet her for the first time this week at the bail hearing.
“You can tell she has a heart,” he said.
The judge has told court that he would reserve his decision for a later date.
A criminal conviction review can take years. When it is over, a report and legal advice will be prepared for the federal justice minister. The minister can then order a new trial or appeal, or dismiss the application if he is not convinced there has been a miscarriage of justice.
Outside court Wednesday, Odelia Quewezance said she and her sister are grateful for their supporters.
“My team wouldn’t be here if they didn’t believe we were innocent.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2023.