Man jailed for 23 years granted bail

WINNIPEG — For the last 23 years, Amber Ostrowski’s Christmas wish was to spend the holidays with her father.

Frank Ostrowski

WINNIPEG — For the last 23 years, Amber Ostrowski’s Christmas wish was to spend the holidays with her father.

On Friday, that wish finally came true.

A Winnipeg judge granted Frank Ostrowski bail while his conviction in a drug murder is reviewed by the federal government.

Ostrowski, a former hair stylist turned drug dealer, has been behind bars since he was found guilty in 1987 of ordering the shooting of dealer Robert Nieman over a drug debt.

“Being innocent and being in jail — that’s a nightmare,” Ostrowski said as he left court with his daughter. “I was just hoping and praying that the truth would come out, and it has.”

Ostrowski, his voice breaking, said he was most looking forward to being with his family. His daughter echoed that.

“I’ve wished every single Christmas for my dad,” she said. “Now, I can have it. I have my dad and I saved the tree. The tree is up but all the decorations are saved for him.”

The Crown argued Nieman was killed because of fears he was informing police about Ostrowski’s cocaine dealings.

Ostrowski was convicted largely on the testimony of a key witness, Matthew Lovelace, who was facing separate charges of possessing cocaine. The Crown stayed the charges a few months after Ostrowski was convicted.

But neither Ostrowski’s lawyers nor the jury were told about the so-called “sweetheart deal.”

When Lovelace was asked during Ostrowski’s trial whether he was receiving any favours for his testimony, he said he wasn’t. Lovelace’s lawyer testified he never told his client about the deal so his testimony wasn’t tainted.

Ostrowski has always maintained his innocence and the federal government agreed to review his case to determine if he was wrongfully convicted.

Friday’s decision gives him his freedom while that happens.

“Mr. Ostrowski has raised serious concerns about the conviction,” said Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Colleen Suche. “He is 60 years of age and in declining health. If he is innocent, the years taken from him can never be restored.

“If the minister denies his application for review, he will return to prison to serve the balance of his sentence. In all of the circumstances, I conclude that it is not in the public interest that Mr. Ostrowski remain in custody.”

While the Crown argued the deal given to Lovelace wasn’t unusual at the time, Ostrowski’s lawyer, James Lockyer, said the jury was “totally misled.”

Ostrowski may be free on bail, but Lockyer said it could take years for his client’s name to be cleared through a federal review.

“It’s a big job,” he said. “These things take time.”

Ostrowski is the fourth man convicted of murder in Manitoba to have his guilt thrown into doubt. Three other men have been exonerated in recent years after spending time behind bars.

James Driskell was convicted of killing a friend in Winnipeg in 1990 based partly on testimony from Ray Zanidean — a witness who, unbeknownst to the defence, was given tens of thousands of dollars in expense payments as well as immunity on an arson charge for his testimony. Driskell’s conviction was quashed in 2005.

Kyle Unger was convicted of killing a teenage girl at a rock festival in 1990. His conviction was quashed by the federal justice minister after DNA tests disproved the only physical evidence. The defence didn’t know a jailhouse informant in the case was given special considerations for his help.

Thomas Sophonow was found guilty of killing Winnipeg waitress Barbara Stoppel in 1981 based largely on witness testimony that would later prove to be faulty. One witness’s statement to police contradicted her testimony in court, but the defence never knew about the police statement and couldn’t challenge the testimony. Sophonow spent four years in prison before he was freed on appeal.

In the Driskell and Sophonow cases, the Crown’s lack of disclosure was criticized in subsequent public inquiries.

Both Lockyer and the province hinted there may be more cases to come.

“There may be more and we’ll deal with them on a case-by-case basis,” said Don Slough, Manitoba’s deputy attorney general.

“It speaks more to an era that’s long past. Many things have changed — disclosure issues, the way we approach cases. There have been many, many changes since then.”

Ostrowski was one of three men convicted in Nieman’s murder.

Jose Luis Correia was sentenced to life in prison but was granted early release last year and has since been deported to his native Portugal.

Robert Dunkley was convicted of pulling the trigger and continues to serve a life sentence for first-degree murder.

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