Author: Sarah Harland-Logan

Introduction

Gregory Parsons was only 19 when his life was forever transformed by a shocking miscarriage of justice. Gregory’s life was not easy: his parents separated when he was six, and at nine he was sent to live with his mother, Catherine Carroll. Catherine was a loving but troubled woman who struggled with alcoholism, depression and anxiety, hoarding behaviours, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As a teenager, Gregory worked hard to help his mother with her problems and support himself. Although he wanted to stay in school, he kept having to drop out in order to run the carpet cleaning business which he had started at age 16. He was well liked in the community and would take out garbage, mow lawns and shovel snow for neighbours who were unable to do these tasks themselves.[1]

Unfortunately, Catherine was in the habit of frequently lying about a wide range of subjects. For instance, she had once called Gregory’s girlfriend Tina’s manager to complain that Tina was “giving out bank secrets” belonging to the employer. Catherine later admitted that she had fabricated this story because she had been annoyed with Tina. Concerned about her increasingly erratic behaviour, Gregory contacted her psychiatrist. Despite his efforts, Catherine’s tendency to lie would ultimately land her son in jail.[2]

On January 2nd, 1991, Gregory called his mother, whom he had been trying to reach for a few days. At first he had assumed that she was busy or out with friends, but eventually he started to worry. At 10:30 p.m., he drove to her house and climbed in through a front window. He followed his mother’s barking dog up the stairs, to a locked bathroom. Gregory managed to force the door open. What he saw inside would stay with him forever: his mother’s body, lying in a pool of dried blood. Screaming, Gregory ran outside and called 911.[3]

Gregory’s Arrest

The police officers who investigated the crime scene quickly noticed that one of the basement windows had been damaged, showing signs of forced entry. However, the police believed that the window was too small for the murderer to have gained access to the house through it. Instead, they focused their investigation on Gregory – especially when it became clear that Catherine had told various people that she felt threatened by her son and feared for her safety. Despite the fact that they had no physical evidence implicating him – their theory based entirely on statements made by a woman whose psychiatrist had described her as having “a tendency to exaggerate and dramatize all the problems that she … [had] gone through in her life” – the investigators rapidly became convinced that Gregory had committed the horrific crime of matricide.[4]

On January 10, 1991, Gregory was arrested and charged with his mother’s murder. He later described his treatment at the hands of the arresting officers as “degrading” and “humiliating.” He explained the sequence of events that occurred after he was placed in the police cruiser as follows:

…the mind games began, the mental abuse, the torture… [the officer] Gets me back to the station, strips me down to my underwear, [has] … me holding out my hands. This went on for hours. I’m telling you into an hour of it I felt like I never slept in days or weeks. It was the most mentally draining thing I’ve ever had to endure.

Gregory was later moved from the police station to the lockup and between the buildings he fell “face first into the snow.” Four or five days passed before he was even allowed to shower.[5]

On January 18, 1991, Gregory was released from these deplorable conditions. In fact, the judge who released him was skeptical that this seemingly ordinary citizen could have committed the crime of which he was accused: “Is that the classic matricide type of person?,” he asked before releasing Gregory on bail.[6]

Gregory’s Trial

More than two years later, Gregory’s murder trial finally began, on September 23, 1993. At trial, the jury heard from many witnesses who recalled that Catherine had made statements expressing her fear of her son and her belief that he might kill her. These hearsay statements were admitted even though it should have been clear that they were completely unreliable. The judge also admitted a tape of a parodical song that Gregory and his friends had previously composed in imitation of “trash” music featuring “death and destruction” themes. This tape regrettably included the lyrics, “Kill your fuckin mother, kill your fuckin father.” It is easy to imagine how these lyrics would have appeared to the jury – even though there was never any physical evidence to connect Gregory to his mother’s death.[7]

On February 15, 1994, Gregory was convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 15 years.[8]

Gregory’s Appeal and Bail

Gregory appealed his conviction and applied to be released on bail until his appeal could be heard. On March 25, 1994, Gregory was granted bail – despite his having just been found guilty of second-degree murder – due to number of factors, including the fact that his conviction rested entirely on circumstantial evidence. In addition, he had the strong support of his community: around 300 residents had signed a petition stating that they would welcome his return and did not have any safety concerns.[9]

It took another two years before Gregory’s appeal was heard, starting on March 11, 1996. The Newfoundland Court of Appeal agreed with Gregory, that his conviction had been a mistake. The Court based their decision on three serious errors that the trial judge had made. First, the jury should not have heard all of the incriminating hearsay statements that Catherine had made to various community members. Second, the joke tape that Gregory had made with his friends as a young teenager similarly should not have been admitted.[10] Finally, the judges were unimpressed by the fact that the Crown prosecutor had closed her case by asking the jury, “If Greg Parsons didn’t cause his mother’s death[,] who did?” Since an accused person must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be convicted of a crime, it is not the accused’s responsibility to suggest other suspects in his or her place. However, the trial judge did not explain this fact to the jury, so as to “disabuse … them of the notion that they could somehow conclude that the accused was guilty” simply because it was not apparent who else might have committed the murder. Instead, the trial judge stated that the prosecutor’s comment was “a rightful and legal remark to make” – and moreover, that “she would have been negligent not to make it”![11]

As a result of these three fatal mistakes, on December 3, 1996, the Newfoundland Court of Appeal quashed Gregory’s conviction and ordered a new trial. While Gregory was on bail for the periods of time before his appeal and while awaiting his second trial, he was never truly free. His strict conditions of release required he sign in at the police station every day. On many of those days, the police made snide remarks and occasionally pretended to have lost the information showing that he had checked in as required, making Gregory believe that he was about to be arrested. Gregory also lived in fear that he might one day actually forget to sign in, leading to his arrest. Police officers frequently followed Gregory and members of his family around town. Perhaps the most troubling incident of police harassment occurred in July of 1997 when officers commanded a police dog to attack Gregory as he had smoked a small amount of marijuana in order to relieve stress. As a result of the dog attack, Gregory had to spend three weeks in a wheelchair and on crutches as his legs healed – partially: he suffered permanent physical damage and scarring in addition to the mental anguish inflicted by his wrongful conviction.[12]

Gregory’s Acquittal

Fortunately, in the years that had lapsed between Gregory’s conviction and the lead-up to his new trial, DNA testing techniques had become significantly more effective. On January 26, 1998, DNA testing confirmed that the DNA identified at the murder scene could not possibly be Gregory’s. In other words, Gregory was innocent.[13]

In light of this revelation, the Crown chose not to proceed with a new trial. Instead, a Stay of Proceedings was entered on February 2, 1998. [14] This action meant that although Gregory would not undergo a new trial, his name was not officially cleared. However, AIDWYC took Gregory’s case and fought to ensure that he would indeed be acquitted, thus demonstrating to the world that he had played no part in his mother’s death.

On November 5, 1998, Gregory was finally acquitted. The Minister of Justice publically apologized “to Gregory … and his family for the disruption to their lives and the extreme anguish they have had to endure over the past eight years.” The government also commissioned an inquiry into Gregory’s wrongful conviction, the results of which were released on June 21, 2006.[15]

The keystone to Gregory’s acquittal was the discovery of the real culprit – Gregory’s childhood friend Brian Doyle – who confessed and later pled guilty to Catherine Carroll’s murder. The DNA evidence that exonerated Gregory confirmed that Doyle was the real killer. Doyle admitted that on New Year’s Eve, 1990, he broke in through the basement window that the police surmised was too small to be the killer’s point of entry, and stabbed and slashed Catherine 53 times.

Gregory made a victim impact statement in which he described how he had been best friends with Brian Doyle growing up, and how he had protected Doyle from bullies. After Brian’s conviction, Gregory told reporters, “This is mom’s day. She’s always been portrayed in a negative light and she was a good person.” Doyle was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 18 years.[16]

Causes of Gregory’s Wrongful Conviction: Tunnel Vision

Gregory’s wrongful conviction had many causes. The most obvious explanation is that the trial judge admitted incriminating hearsay statements from a troubled woman who had lied extensively about her son’s behaviour. As mentioned above, the judge also admitted the parodical tape that Gregory and his friends had earlier in their teenage years, and allowed the prosecutor to suggest that Gregory must be guilty because no other suspects had been put forward.[17]

That said, the investigation and trial that led to Gregory’s wrongful conviction were motivated by a dangerous and all too common phenomenon known as “tunnel vision.” Tunnel vision has been described as “the single minded and overly narrow focus on an investigation or prosecutorial theory” – in this case, the theory that Gregory had murdered his mother – “so as to unreasonably colour the evaluation of information received and one’s conduct in response to the information.”[18]It is easy for police and prosecutors to fall into tunnel vision, particularly if they are under intense pressure to solve a case. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, tunnel vision is a common feature found in many miscarriages of justice.[19] Moreover, “it is a trap that can capture even the best police officer or prosecutor,” especially because “it is mutually reinforcing amongst police officers [and] … prosecutors.” Tunnel vision must therefore “be guarded against vigilantly.”[20]

One way that prosecutors must guard against this trap is by keeping in mind that their role is not to secure a conviction, but rather to ensure that justice is done. This means that their role “excludes any notion of winning or losing,” as the Supreme Court put it in the now-famous case R v Boucher. In fact, the current Ontario Crown Policy Manual specifically comments that prosecutors must be “open to the possibility of the innocence of the accused person and avoid ‘tunnel vision.’”[21]

Sadly, the prosecutors who worked on Gregory’s case lost sight of these obligations, as well as the vital separation between their role and that of police officers. As described in the Ontario Crown Policy Manual, “the working relationship between police and crown counsel” must include “appropriate recognition of the boundaries between the investigative and prosecutorial functions.”[22]

The Inquiry into Gregory’s wrongful conviction found that the prosecutor who first worked on his case “appeared to be unusually close to the actual investigation.” The prosecutor visited the police station and discussed the investigation with officers. Perhaps as a result of this unwise participation in the investigation, the prosecutor “‘bought in’ completely to the police theory” rather than keeping a dispassionate distance. Similarly, the prosecutor who ran Gregory’s trial accepted the police theory, which contributed to her “overreaching” throughout the trial. In addition to successfully attempting to put unreliable hearsay evidence before the jury, during the trial she described Gregory as a “monster,” “evil,” and an “animal.” Both prosecutors lost sight of their proper goal – not to “win,” but rather to ensure that justice is achieved. And when the wrong person is convicted, the only winner is the real culprit.[23]

Causes of Gregory’s Wrongful Conviction: Technological Limitations

By 1998, DNA testing technology had improved enough that it could be employed to exonerate Gregory and implicate the real killer. It is very fortunate that we now live in an era where miscarriages of justice like Gregory’s can be rectified through DNA testing.[24]

That being said, as forensic science continues to evolve, it has become clear that many other forensic scientific techniques are much less reliable than we once believed. Shoe print comparison, bite mark analysis, firearm tool mark analysis, and other such techniques that have never been properly tested remain potential causes of wrongful convictions. Furthermore, even generally reliable, properly validated forensic techniques such as DNA typing and serology can produce inaccurate results if the samples are contaminated. Finally, the experts tasked with interpreting forensic evidence for the court may make mistakes that can contribute to miscarriages of justice, as in the many wrongful convictions resulting from the infamously inaccurate testimony of Dr. Charles Smith.[25]

Wounds that AIDWYC Cannot Heal

During the years that Gregory spent fighting to clear his name and ultimately bring his mother’s real killer to justice, he endured the loss of his freedom; humiliating and brutal police treatment, including the permanent injuries he suffered during the dog attack; and the abrupt, shattering end of an already difficult youth. During the Inquiry into the miscarriage of justice that befell him, Gregory described his conviction as “the end of the world to me.” He recalled “lying on a bunk, looking up at the writing on the bottom of the bunk above you and thinking this is what you’re going to look at now for the rest of your life.” He also did not have the opportunity to grieve for his mother after her violent death.[26]

Although Gregory received compensation for his wrongful conviction – unlike many others who have suffered similar miscarriages of justice – no amount of money could undo the needless pain and fear that he and his family endured. At the time of the public Inquiry, he was still struggling to put his family tragedy behind him, and erase the “huge gap” in his life that these events created.[27]

Gregory and Tina – now his wife – have shown tremendous resilience and courage in the face of this tragedy. As Gregory explained at the Inquiry, “My children don’t want for anything, I’m pleased to say. They have a very happy life, and, basically, it brings me the utmost happiness every day… [T]hat’s worth more to me than anything.”[28]


[1] The Right Honourable Antonio Lamer, Commissioner. The Lamer Commission of Inquiry Pertaining to the Cases of: Ronald Dalton; Gregory Parsons; Randy Druken – Report and Annexes. June 21, 2006, available at: http://www.justice.gov.nl.ca/just/publications/lamerreport.pdf, pp. 74-75 [Inquiry].

[2] Ibid at pp. 72-74, 113.

[3] Ibid at p. 76.

[4] Ibid at pp. 76-80.

[5] Ibid at pp. 3, 81-82.

[6] Ibid at p. 82.

[7] Ibid at pp. 85-87.

[8] Ibid at pp. 87-88.

[9] Ibid at pp. 3, 88.

[10] Ibid at pp. 88-89.

[11] Ibid at p. 89.

[12] Ibid at pp. 3, 90-9.

[13] Ibid at pp. 3, 94.

[14] Ibid at p. 94; Government of Newfoundland and Labrador – Canada: News Release, February 5, 1998, available at: http://www.releases.gov.nl.ca/releases/1998/just/0205n07.htm

[15] Government of Newfoundland and Labrador – Canada: News Release, November 5, 1998, available at http://www.releases.gov.nl.ca/releases/1998/just/1105n02.htm; Government of Newfoundland and Labrador – Canada: News Release, June 21, 2006, available at http://www.releases.gov.nl.ca/releases/2006/just/0621n03.htm.

[16] Inquiry, supra note 1 at pp. 3, 94, 124; CBC News: “Guilty Plea in Newfoundland Murder Case that Sent Innocent Man to Jail.” November 12, 2002, available at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/guilty-plea-in-newfoundland-murder-case-that-sent-innocent-man-to-jail-1.347457; CBC News: “Man to Serve 18 Years for Killing Friend’s Mom.” February 18, 2003, available at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/man-to-serve-18-years-for-killing-friend-s-mom-1.393204.; CBC News: “Son Wrongly Accused of Killing His Mother Gives Emotional Court Statement.” November 14, 2002, available at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/son-wrongly-accused-of-killing-his-mother-gives-emotional-court-statement-1.352096.

[17] “Inquiry,” supra note 1 at pp. 88-89.

[18] The Honourable Fred Kaufman, C.M., Q.C.: “Recommendation 74,” Report of The Kaufman Commission on Proceedings Involving Guy Paul Morin: Recommendations, p. 26, available at: http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/about/pubs/morin/morin_recom.pdf.

[19] See discussion in Truscott (Re), 2007 ONCA 575, 225 C.C.C. (3d) 321.

[20] Inquiry, supra note 1 at p. 71; “4. Tunnel Vision.” FTP Heads of Prosecutions Committee Report of the Working Group on the Prevention of Miscarriages of Justice: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/ccr-rc/pmj-pej/p4.html#foot114.

[21] “Role of the Crown: Preamble to the Crown Policy Manual” (pp. 1-2), Ontario Crown Policy Manual, 2005, available at: http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/crim/cpm/2005/CPMPreamble.pdf (citing R v Boucher (1954), 110 CCC 263).

[22] “Police: Relationship with Crown Counsel,” Ontario Crown Policy Manual, 2005, available at: http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/crim/cpm/2005/PoliceRelationshipWithCrown.pdf.

[23] Inquiry, supra note 1 at pp. 129-130, 141, 145-148, 152-153.

[24] Ibid at pp. 3, 94.

[25] For more information on these topics, see The Innocence Project, “Understand the Causes: Unreliable or Improper Forensic Science,” at http://www.innocenceproject.org/understand/Unreliable-Limited-Science.php.

[26] Inquiry, supra note 1 at pp. 95-96, 98.

[27] Ibid at p. 99.

[28] Ibid at p. 100.