TORONTO — Romeo Phillion, who confessed to murder and then spent more than three decades behind bars protesting his innocence before he was freed and his conviction overturned, has passed away after a lengthy illness, supporters said Tuesday.
Friends and supporters said he died Monday from chronic lung disease, a day after his admission to hospital in Mississauga, Ont.
“For someone who went through what he did and was wrongly convicted like that, he wasn’t a bitter person,” said Howard Gelfand, a friend and eight-year housemate who had been caring for Phillion.
“He was a very good-hearted person. He loved animals. He just enjoyed life.”
Phillion, 76, was convicted in 1972 of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of an Ottawa firefighter, Leopold Roy, five years earlier. The conviction was based largely on Phillion’s confession, which he recanted within hours.
He was jailed for life but always refused to seek parole, saying it would amount to an admission of guilt. By the time he was released on bail pending disposition of his case in 2003, he had spent 31 years behind bars, becoming Canada’s longest-ever serving inmate to have a murder conviction thrown out.
The federal government ultimately referred his case to the Ontario Court of Appeal, which, in a split decision in 2009, quashed his conviction and ordered a new trial.
The Appeal Court heard that police had initially verified an alibi that he was nowhere near the crime scene — but never told the defence about it. Investigators would later say there was no obligation to pass that information on because they had, on further investigation, found the alibi to be untrue.
The Crown, arguing too much time had passed to try him again, withdrew the charge.
“His big disappointment was that they didn’t give him his full exoneration,” said Gelfand, whose late girlfriend was Phillion’s niece.
Phillion, who once said he wanted the “cloud” of suspicion over him lifted once and for all, never explained publicly why he confessed in a statement one Appeal Court justice called “compelling” in its accuracy even if it was wrong on one key detail. His lawyers have said he was trying to impress his lover.
The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, who fought to have Phillion exonerated, mourned his passing.
“Romeo will never be forgotten for his fighting spirit, sense of humour, support of other wrongly convicted and for his boyish and captivating charm,” the association said in a statement.
“Romeo did what he could to draw attention to the devastation that a wrongful conviction imposes on the innocent individual and their family.”
After the prosecution ended, Phillion sued for $14 million, alleging negligence and wrongdoing by prosecutors and two Ottawa police officers. The courts initially denied him the right to sue on the grounds that it would be an abuse of process but he was eventually given the go-ahead.
His lawyer could not be immediately reached for comment.
Despite his health problems, the soft-spoken Phillion became active in supporting the fight against wrongful convictions. He attended association functions despite having to use a scooter and to carry oxygen with him.
“We are extremely grateful to him for his commitment to make a difference regardless of his personal challenges and losses,” the association said.
Funeral arrangements had not been confirmed.