A decade-long miscarriage of justice

Two Saint John men found innocent of a 40-year-old murder conviction

40 years ago, the lives of two Saint John men changed forever. In May of 1984, Robert Mailman and Walter Gillespie were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of George Leeman. Today, now 76 and 81 years old respectively, Mailman and Gillespie have been acquitted, their names cleared for a crime to which they have voiced their innocence for the past four decades. In the coastal New Brunswick town, the truth is being unraveled as a miscarriage of justice is revealed and undisclosed evidence comes to light.

The investigation into the death of George Leeman began on November 30, 1983, as an individual discovered Leeman’s body while jogging through Rockwood Park in Saint John. It is reported that little progress was made in the investigation until over a month later when 16-year-old John Loeman Jr. confessed to police of having witnessed the murder. In the following days, Janet Shatford, Walter Gillespie, and Robert Mailman were each charged with second-degree murder. Later that year, Loeman Jr. testified at trial to seeing Mailman and Shatford hit Leeman in the head while Gillespie stood nearby. Shatford herself testified as well, having pleaded guilty and receiving a reduced charge before the trial, she explained that Leeman owed Mailman debts, causing the accused to hit the victim and then instruct Shatford to do the same. Mailman and Gillespie maintained their innocence, yet were found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, each serving around 20 years before being released on parole.

Today, 40 years later, new information has been revealed which challenges the credibility of these two witnesses. By law, all evidence gathered during a police investigation must be disclosed to the defense lawyers. However, initial statements made by witnesses and financial benefits accepted remained undisclosed, until recently. In the month following the discovery of Leeman’s body, Shatford, and Loeman Jr. both made statements to police of having no knowledge of Leeman’s death. These statements were later altered and the witnesses were given financial benefits by police, with Loeman Jr. receiving around $1,500 in total.

Since the 1984 convictions, both witnesses have recanted their testimonies. Loeman Jr. reportedly stated on five occasions that he gave false evidence in court after being coerced by Saint John Police to say that Mailman was involved. Gillespie himself has since admitted to being approached by police and offered a deal to testify against Mailman. These undisclosed offers support defense lawyer Jerome Kennedy’s theory “that the police were out to get Bobby[Mailman].” In light of the growing body of evidence, last month, Justice Minister Arif Virani ordered a retrial of the 1984 conviction on the grounds of “a miscarriage of justice.”

A hearing took place on January 4, 2024, nearly four decades after the initial conviction. Following a short proceeding, Justice Tracey Deware found Mailman and Gillespie not guilty of the charge and issued a written apology for what had occurred over the past 40 years. Ron Dalton, the co-president of Innocence Canada which worked alongside the accused to reach acquittal, spoke on behalf of Mailman and Gillespie following the acquittal. In terms of recompensation, Dalton voiced that “it is too late to fix a lot”, expressing that in addition to the men being unable to retrieve their lost years, the victim’s family will never get justice. In the hearing, Justice Deware apologized to the men, critiquing the miscarriage of justice that occurred. Mailman and Gillespie noted appreciation for the apology, yet hoped for further financial compensation. 

Gabriel Theriault – Argosy Illustrator

As time elapses with no word of compensation, Gillespie believes that the government may be delaying so that the men die before any action is taken. Diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, Mailman knows he does not have long to live but hopes to be able to leave financial aid for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren before he dies. Gillespie might not be wrong, Dalton says that cases have been seen by Innocence Canada where the wrongfully convicted die before receiving any compensation. The provincial Justice Minister of New Brunswick and Saint John Police have not responded on the subject, providing no comment on the matter, leaving the men to wonder whether they will ever receive compensation for this miscarriage of justice.

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