WINNIPEG — Kyle Unger scarcely believes his 19-year fight to clear his name in the grisly murder of a teenage girl is over.
“I’m still trying to let it all absorb. It was a long journey, and finally it’s over,” Unger said Friday after walking out of a Winnipeg courtroom with his name cleared.
“Let’s hope that the public will see that also, and look at me as innocent.”
But it appears that Unger could be heading toward another court battle.
His lawyer, Hersh Wolch, said he would be seeking compensation for his client, but Manitoba Attorney General Dave Chomiak said the government wouldn’t pay.
Chomiak said there never would have been a trial if Unger hadn’t originally confessed to the murder.
He said the case is different than the one of another wrongfully convicted Manitoba man, James Driskell, because it was found that evidence in his murder trial was withheld.
“Without his confession, he would not have been charged,” the justice minister said. “Without the confession, he would not have been convicted. Twelve men and women in a jury convicted him.”
Unger, 38, was acquitted Friday of the 1990 slaying of 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier at a music festival south of Winnipeg. He spent most of his adult life — 14 years — behind bars after being found guilty in her death.
Problems with trial evidence prompted the federal justice minister to quash the conviction earlier this year.
The Crown said it had no evidence for a new trial.
“This prosecution goes no further,” Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Glenn Joyal told Unger. “There’s nothing more I can say other than good luck.”
It was a rare move. Most often an accused in a wrongful conviction case is never formally cleared by the courts.
Wolch told court Unger’s case was an “extreme example of tunnel vision and abuse of investigative authority. It has all the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction. They’re all here.”
Grenier was brutalized, sexually assaulted and left dead in a field. Unger was convicted along with Timothy Houlahan, who was the lone witness to say Unger had taken part in the crime.
Questions about the conviction arose early. Houlahan had scratches on his face while Unger had none.
Unger told undercover police posing as gang members he had killed Grenier, but later said he lied because he wanted to get into the gang.
When asked Friday why he would have confessed to something he didn’t do, he replied he had few options at the time.
“When you’re young, naive and desperate for money, they hold a lot of promises to you, so you say and do what you have to do to survive, just like in prison,” he said.
The only physical evidence linking him to Grenier was a hair found on her sweater. An RCMP forensics expert testified the hair was Unger’s, but DNA tests in 2005 showed it wasn’t. He was released on bail pending a review of his case.
Earlier this year, the federal justice minister ordered a new trial, saying the case was probably a miscarriage of justice. That left the Crown having to choose between seeking a new trial, staying the charge with the option of reviving it later or agreeing to an acquittal.
The acquittal, which clears Unger’s name permanently, was the only option, Crown lawyer Don Slough said.
“There is no evidence that’s capable of sustaining a conviction. He’s entitled to that,” Slough said. “He is innocent in the eyes of the law.”
Houlahan had his conviction overturned and committed suicide while waiting for a retrial in 1994.
Friday’s ruling means no one will be held responsible for Grenier’s murder, something her family was having a hard time accepting.
“They’re devastated by this. They’ve suffered a horrible loss,” Slough said.
Unger’s case is not the first time RCMP hair analysis has proven faulty.
Driskell was freed after spending 13 years in prison for the 1990 murder of Perry Harder in Winnipeg. There were no witnesses to the slaying, and the Crown relied largely on three hairs found in Driskell’s van. An RCMP forensics expert testified the hairs belonged to the victim.
DNA tests in 2002 showed that they actually came from three different people — none of whom were Harder.
Like Unger, Driskell was released on bail while the federal justice minister reviewed his case. The Crown eventually stayed the murder charge and was later criticized for doing so in a public inquiry.
The retired judge who led the Driskell inquiry, Patrick Lesage, said staying a charge leaves a question mark over an accused. He said the Crown should either retry such cases or allow an accused to be acquitted.
Driskell was awarded $4 million in compensation.
Unger is heading back to British Columbia where he had been living under strict bail conditions that ended with Friday’s ruling. He said he is not angry about what happened to him.
“Upset but not angry. When you feed off anger, it just takes more from you. They already took my younger years away from me, why let them take my mind?”
He said the support of his family kept him going and he plans to return to Manitoba more often for visits.
He’s hoping the public will eventually accept that he had nothing to do with Grenier’s death.
“I’m hoping eventually they’ll believe it.”