Author: Sarah Harland-Logan


Barbara Stoppel was only 16 years old when she was brutally strangled to death at her workplace. On December 23, 1981, she was found close to death in the women’s washroom at the Ideal Donut Shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A few days later, she passed away at a local hospital. Her killer was never brought to justice.[1]

As would be brought to light many years later, Thomas Sophonow had an ironclad alibi: he could not have committed this crime. Thomas had arrived in Winnipeg from Vancouver sometime during the night of December 22- 23, hoping to visit his two-year-old daughter. When he was not able to reach an agreement with his ex-wife, he left a gift for his daughter with family and took care of some other tasks. Specifically, he arranged for his car’s brakes to be repaired at the Canadian Tire and, while waiting, he went to a nearby Safeway to buy Christmas stockings with candies and toys inside. Later that evening, he distributed the stockings to the children’s wards of local hospitals. In the interim, he called his mother.[2]

It is a deeply sad irony that these were Thomas’ actions during the time period when he was for many years believed to have committed a reprehensible murder. A number of eyewitnesses had observed a man who looked something like Thomas sitting in the donut shop and, later, locking the door and retreating toward the back of the store, presumably preparing to kill Barbara. These eyewitnesses incorrectly picked Thomas out of photo and in-person line-ups. Police interviewed Thomas twice; unfortunately, the officers did not record the interviews or take verbatim notes, making it difficult to determine exactly what happened. However, what we do know is that during his second interview, Thomas was subjected to very aggressive and traumatizing interview techniques that would not be acceptable today under any circumstances. Most notably, he underwent a strip search and a search of his anal cavity, despite there being no reason to think that this highly invasive search was necessary or appropriate. This interrogation was very traumatizing, so much so that even he became convinced that he had murdered Barbara, despite the fact he could not possibly have done so.[3]

False Incriminating Evidence

After this alarming interview, Thomas was arrested and transported to the lock-up. An undercover police constable was placed near him in the facility, in the hopes that Thomas would confess to the officer. Thomas made no such confession, but he did demonstrate the officer how the door of the donut shop was locked from the inside before Barbara was murdered. Since we now know that Thomas had an alibi and could not possibly have committed this murder, the only conclusion we can draw is that the police themselves showed Thomas the door-locking technique when they were interviewing him.[4]

In addition to Thomas’ demonstration of the door-locking technique, and the witnesses’ mistaken belief that he was the suspicious man they had observed at the donut shop where Barbara was murdered, there was one piece of physical evidence that supposedly linked Thomas to the killing. One of the witnesses, Mr. Doerksen, had observed the killer running away from the crime scene. Mr. Doerksen saw the killer throw something into the river while running over a bridge. Police later retrieved a piece of twine from this location which had fibres imbedded in it that had come from Barbara’s sweater. When the police investigated the source of this twine – which had been used to strangle Barbara – they found that it could have come from one of two companies, Powers Twines or Berkley. They asked officials from each company whether the twine had come from them. The Powers Twines officials visually inspected the twine and concluded that it was theirs, while Berkeley officials concluded that the twine had not come from their company. Importantly, Berkeley added a tracer element to all of their twine, and a $100 test could have been performed to find out whether or not the twine contained this distinctive tracer. Inexplicably, this test was not carried out.[5]

This failure turned out to be enormously important, as Berkeley manufactured their twine in Portage la Prairie (near Winnipeg), whereas Powers Twines’ plant was in Washington, and easily accessible at various British Columbia construction sites. Since the police believed that the twine in question came from Powers Twines, and they knew that Thomas was living in Vancouver, they concluded that Thomas was the person who had used the twine to kill Barbara. We now know that a simple, inexpensive test could have revealed the truth; that the twine was actually from Berkeley’s Portage la Prairie plant – a fact that might have saved Thomas decades of living with the stigma of being a murderer.[6]

Thomas’ Trials and Appeals

Thomas was put on trial three times for a crime that he did not commit. His first trial began on October 18th, 1982. The police and prosecutors believed that they possessed a great deal of evidence demonstrating that Thomas was the killer: the eyewitness identifications; Thomas’ door-locking demonstration; and the suspicious twine that Thomas was thought to have brought with him from British Columbia. In addition, the jury heard damning evidence from three different jailhouse informants who claimed that Thomas had confessed to killing Barbara while he was incarcerated. However, the eyewitnesses also testified that they had seen Barbara talking to the killer for a few minutes, and following him toward the back of the store; and there was no evidence at all to suggest that Barbara and Thomas knew each other. There was also no physical evidence besides the wrongly identified twine to connect Thomas to the murder. At the end of Thomas’ first trial, the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict so, on November 6, 1982, a mistrial was declared. Thomas would have to go through the trial process a second time.[7]

Thomas’ second trial began on February 21,1983, and this time the jury took a different view. Thomas was convicted of Barbara’s murder on March 17. He appealed his conviction to the Manitoba Court of Appeal, arguing that the trial judge had not presented his position to the jury in an adequate and fair manner. The Court of Appeal agreed that the trial judge had failed to fulfill his obligation to present the defence’s theory of the case to the jury, fully and without bias. Therefore Thomas had not received a fair trial. As a result, the Court of Appeal overturned Thomas’ conviction and ordered that a third trial be held instead.[8]

Thomas’ third and final trial began on February 4, 1985. Again, the jury found Thomas guilty. Thomas again appealed and argued that as at his second trial, the third trial judge had not presented his theory of the case to the jury in a full and fair manner. Again, the Manitoba Court of Appeal agreed: on December 12, 1985, the Court found that Thomas’ third trial had been unfair as well. This time, however, the Court concluded that since he had already gone through three trials and spent 45 months – almost four years – in custody, justice would be best served by acquitting Thomas rather than subjecting him to another trial. On December 12, 1985, Thomas was acquitted.[9]

A Miscarriage of Justice

Although Thomas was now free from prison and the threat of further criminal prosecutions, he knew that many people believed that he had killed Barbara. In fact, he received messages with the words “we know who are you” and “murderer.” What’s more, Thomas’ house was firebombed on one occasion. Thankfully, he and his family were able to escape, but the attack could have been fatal. Given these circumstances, it is unsurprising that Thomas devoted a great deal of his time and energy attempting to secure an official exoneration.[10]

Thomas’ many years of effort paid off on June 8, 2000, when the Winnipeg Police Service announced that Thomas was not responsible for Barbara’s murder. The Attorney General of Manitoba apologized to Thomas for the “three trials and two appeals, and … 45 months in jail” that he had had to endure “for an offence he did not commit.” A Commission of Inquiry, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Peter Cory, was formed to determined what had caused Thomas’ wrongful conviction, and how these problems could be avoided in future cases. AIDWYC participated extensively throughout the Inquiry’s hearings. In particular, AIDWYC focused on the issue of eyewitness evidence and its many failings, and fought to ensure that Thomas would receive the compensation that he so richly deserved.[11]

The Sophonow Inquiry report was released on November 5, 2001. This report identified an incredible array of errors and other problems that led to Thomas’ wrongful conviction. The chief causes of this miscarriage of justice are set out below. Unlike many wrongly convicted people, Thomas received $2.3 million in compensation for the miscarriage of justice and the resulting trauma that he suffered, and the years of his life that he lost.[12]

Causes of Thomas’ Wrongful Conviction: Tunnel Vision

The root cause of Thomas’ wrongful conviction was a phenomenon known as “tunnel vision,” which has been described as “the single minded and overly narrow focus on an investigation or prosecutorial theory” – in this case, the theory that Thomas had murdered Barbara – “so as to unreasonably colour the evaluation of information received and one’s conduct in response to the information.”[13] It is easy for police and prosecutors to fall into tunnel vision, particularly if they are under intense pressure to solve a case. Tunnel vision is therefore a common feature found in many miscarriages of justice.[14] Moreover, “it is a trap that can capture even the best police officer or prosecutor” and thus “must be guarded against vigilantly.”[15]

The Inquiry into Thomas’ wrongful conviction determined that the police succumbed to tunnel vision at an early stage of the investigation into Barbara’s murder, causing them to “focus … on Thomas Sophonow as the killer to the exclusion of all others and fail … to accept any evidence or explanation that was contrary to their theory.” As a result, Thomas was wrongly convicted, while the real killer has never been brought to justice.[16]

Causes of Thomas’ Wrongful Conviction: Unreliable Eyewitness Evidence

Although eyewitness testimony is commonly accepted as reliable, it has in fact played a role in many wrongful convictions (see, for example, the cases of AIDWYC clients Robert Baltovich, Anthony Hanemaayer and Romeo Phillion). Witnesses make incorrect identifications at an alarmingly high rate. In fact, of the Innocence Project’s first 225 exonerations of people who were wrongly convicted in the US, “77% of the convictions had been based on mistaken eyewitness identification.”[17] Dr. Elizabeth Loftus – the expert called in the Inquiry to explain the science behind these mistaken identifications – “emphasized that faulty eyewitness identification is by far the single most important cause of wrongful convictions.” One of the reasons for the fact is that “there is a very weak relationship between the confidence level of a witness and the accuracy of that witness”: in other words, confident witnesses are no more likely to make a correct identification than uncertain witnesses. This lack of correlation between confidence and accuracy is especially unfortunate given that jurors “tend to find confident witnesses more believable.”[18]

In addition to these general frailties of eyewitness testimony, the police investigating Barbara’s murder used problematic techniques in their attempt to elicit evidence from the witnesses. The Crown’s most important witness was John Doerksen, the man who ran after the murderer and attempted to confront him. The first of many problems with Mr. Doerksen’s eyewitness testimony is that at some point during the investigation, he underwent a session with a hypnotist, during which he gave a somewhat different description of the murderer from the version that he had given previously.[19] As the Supreme Court observed in the case R v Trochym [2007] 1 SCR 239, hypnosis increases the extent to which our memories can change due to outside influences, so that we end up remembering things that never happened. Hypnosis therefore greatly exacerbates the general dangers of eyewitness testimony, which are rooted in this same fallibility of human memory. The Supreme Court made it clear in this case that hypnosis is a dangerous technique for enhancing memory that has no place in a criminal prosecution. [20]

Moreover, when Mr. Doerksen first attended a line-up that included Thomas, he did not identify anyone – including Thomas – as the killer whom he had pursued. Two days later, however, Mr. Doerksen coincidentally saw Thomas while they were both in the Public Safety Building. By that time, Mr. Doerksen had read a newspaper that contained Thomas’ picture. He came to believe that Thomas actually was the person he had seen fleeing the donut shop, even though his appearance was essentially the same as it had been during the line-up. At the Inquiry, Dr. Loftus explained that as time passes, people not only forget information – they also become more susceptible to forming false recollections as a result of new information that they learned after the event. Furthermore, we now know that in 1982, Mr. Doerksen was not able to see well at night or in poor lighting conditions.[21]

Furthermore, two of the Crown’s witnesses identified Thomas after being shown a photo line-up in which his picture stood out dramatically from the others. As Justice Cory put it in the Inquiry report, “The differences in Thomas Sophonow’s pictures are such that it might just as well have carried a notation saying, ‘here I am.’” As a result, this photo line-up was “startlingly unfair.” And finally, two of the witnesses who testified at trial that Thomas was the killer had not in fact been able to identify him during the live line-up that they observed. Rather, both witnesses merely thought that he was the best match as compared to the other people in the line-up. The officer conducting one of these line-ups made the situation worse by informing the witness that he had indeed picked out the current suspect, thereby strengthening his confidence in his incorrect identification. Given this incredible range of problems with the eyewitness testimony used to convict Thomas on two occasions, it is perhaps not surprising that a miscarriage of justice occurred.[22]

Causes of Thomas’ Wrongful Conviction: Jailhouse Informants

Another cause of this miscarriage of justice was the false testimony of three jailhouse informants who claimed that Thomas had confessed to them that he had murdered Barbara. However, each of these people lied on the stand. Shockingly, one of the informants – Mr. McQuade – testified under duress: two police officers had told him that if he did not testify voluntarily against Thomas, then he would be treated as a hostile witness, and the Crown would expose him as a police informant. Since this revelation could easily have led to Mr. McQuade’s death, he chose to testify, fearing for his life. Another informant, Mr. Cheng, was facing 26 counts of fraud at the time. He testified in hopes of getting out of jail and having the charges against him dropped – which, indeed, they were. Finally, the Sophonow Inquiry report described the third informant, Mr. Martin, as “a prime example of the convincing mendacity of jailhouse informants. He seems to have heard more confessions than many dedicated priests.” In fact, “no less than 11 jailhouse informants had volunteered their services” to police in Thomas’ case, meaning that 11 separate people were eager to give false testimony against an innocent man.[23]

Jailhouse informants have contributed to many wrongful convictions: according to statistics compiled by the Innocence Project at the Cardozo Law School in New York:

In more than 15% of wrongful conviction cases overturned through DNA testing, an informant testified against the defendant at the original trial. Often, statements from people with incentives to testify – particularly incentives that are not disclosed to the jury – are the central evidence in convicting an innocent person.[24]

The Sophonow Inquiry report concluded that jailhouse informants should generally be prohibited from testifying in court, since their testimony is notoriously unreliable. (This report followed in the footsteps of the Morin Inquiry report, which also warned against the use of jailhouse informants).[25]

Today, Crown Prosecutors are required to view jailhouse informers’ purported evidence in a much more skeptical and vigilant light. For example, the Ontario Crown Policy Manual states that jailhouse informants’ evidence “requires a rigorous, objective assessment of the informer’s account of the accused person’s alleged statement, the circumstances in which that account was provided to the authorities and the in-custody informer’s general reliability.” The Manual notes that “a principal purpose of this policy is to help prevent miscarriages of justice, which can occur when in-custody informers falsely implicate accused persons” – as did the three jailhouse informants in Thomas’ case. [26]

Causes of Thomas’ Wrongful Conviction: Lack of Disclosure

A number of the problems discussed above could have been dealt with effectively during Thomas’ trials – if Thomas and his lawyers had known that they existed. However, the Crown failed to disclose an astonishing array of information to the defence that could have prevented this miscarriage of justice. For example, Thomas’ lawyers never learned that the $100 test to determine the origin of the twine that was used to strangle Barbara had actually never been performed – and thus, the defence team did not know to take the steps that would have shown them that the police identification of the twine was wrong. Similarly, Thomas’ lawyers never received important information about the jailhouse informants and their motives for testifying that would have cast grave doubt on their reliability. They were also kept in the dark about various problems with the key eyewitness’ evidence.[27]

The Supreme Court made it clear in the 1991 case R v Stinchcombe [1991] 3 SCR 326 that the Crown must disclose any and all potentially relevant documents to the defence (except for a few types of privileged materials). However, as noted by one of the judges in James Driskell’s case – another AIDWYC case – the basic obligation “to disclose all material evidence,” such as the many indicators of the Crown witnesses’ unreliability, “existed long before Stinchcombe.”[28] The Crown failed in this obligation, and it failed Thomas.

Other Causes of Thomas’ Wrongful Conviction

The coercive and traumatizing police practices used in Thomas’ second interview likely led him to withhold potentially crucial exonerating information, helping to set in motion the chain of events that led to his wrongful convictions. Today, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it clear that these techniques are not acceptable. The traumatizing strip search that the police conducted during this interview – despite the complete absence of reason to think that it was necessary – would not be permitted today, since it clearly violates the Charter right not to be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure. As Justice Cory noted, this “deliberate, humiliating and unnecessary strip search and body cavity search … was an unconscionable action.” Moreover, Thomas was not given a caution statement explaining that anything he said could be used against him, nor was he informed that he could call a lawyer at any time. Individuals being detained today have the right to contact a lawyer immediately, and the police are required to tell them this. They also have the right not to incriminate themselves, which is an important cornerstone of our democratic system of justice.[29]

Finally, during Thomas’ second and third trials, the judge did not present his side of the story in a fair and accurate manner to the jury. This failure to set out Thomas’ case appropriately – thereby favouring the Crown rather than dispassionately enabling the jury to make up its own mind – is anathema to the trial judge’s role in our adversarial system. Without this balanced perspective from the trial judge, the accused person cannot have a fair trial, as required under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Thomas’ second and third trial judges failed to afford him that right.[30]

Wounds that AIDWYC Cannot Heal

Thomas spent 45 months in prison for a crime that he did not commit. The Inquiry report described these months as “extremely hard time,” noting that the first of the three prisons where Thomas lived was at that time “the worst or one of the worst prison facilities in Canada.” Later, Thomas was kept in segregation and 23 hours each day. During his time in prison, Thomas discovered the body of a fellow inmate who had committed suicide.[31]

Thomas now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and will likely continue to do so for the rest of his life. One of the psychiatrists who testified at the Inquiry stated that his “preoccupation with what has happened to him clouds his thinking every minute.” Of course, we can hope that Thomas has been able to put some distance between himself and these horrifying events in the years since his exoneration, but he will never be entirely free. In Justice Cory’s words, “The psychological scarring that he has suffered is just as grave and just as permanent as would be the loss of a limb.”[32]

Just as Thomas’ mental state has been forever changed by this series of events, so too has his reputation. Thomas has been officially exonerated; but as Justice Cory noted, “To wrongfully convict someone of a crime, particularly that of murder, is to forever damage the reputation of that person.” This reputation has made life difficult for Thomas at work and with his neighbours – not to mention the firebombing of his house that could have killed Thomas and his family. To quote Justice Cory once more, “Truly, he bore the mark of Cain.”[33]

[1] The Honourable Peter Cory, Commissioner. The Inquiry Regarding Thomas Sophonow. November 5, 2001, available at: “The Facts Giving Rise to the Inquiry, the Authorizing Order in Council, its Nature and Scope” ( [“Facts”]; “Factual Background” ( [“Background”]; R v Sophonow, [1984] MJ No 147 at para 1, 12 CCC (3d) 272 (Monnin CJM) [Sophonow].

[2] Inquiry, supra note 1: “Background”; “Alibi Evidence” (; “Timing of the Disclosure of the Alibi” ( [“Timing”]; “The Atmosphere of Distrust which Existed in 1982 between Crown, Police and Defence Counsel” (; “Police Awareness of Aspects of the Alibi Evidence” (; “Alibi Evidence: Recommendations” (; “Compensation: Dr. Roy O’Shaughnessy” (; Sophonow, supra note 1 at paras 2, 179, 187-192.

[3] Inquiry, supra note 1: “Background”; “Police Interviews with Thomas Sophonow in Vancouver: Interview of Thomas Sophonow by Detective Barnard” ( [“Interview”]; “Police Interviews with Thomas Sophonow in Vancouver: Interrogation of Thomas Sophonow by Sergeants Wawryk and Paulishyn” [“Interrogation”]; “Compensation: The Arrest, Detention and Incarceration and the Effect on Thomas Sophonow” (

[4] Ibid: “Background”; “Interview”; “Interrogation”; “Facts.”

[5] Ibid: “Background”; “Eyewitness Identification: The Eyewitness Evidence and the Role of Police in Gathering and Presenting It: John Doerksen” ( [“Doerksen”]; “The Issue Regarding the Twine” ( [“Twine”].

[6] Ibid: “Doerksen”; “Twine.”

[7] Ibid: “Facts”; “Interrogation”; “Twine”; “Timing”; “Introduction: Trials and Appeals of Thomas Sophonow” ( [“Trials”]; “Jailhouse Informants, Their Unreliability and the Importance of Complete Crown Disclosure Pertaining to Them: Thomas Cheng” ( [“Cheng”]; “Jailhouse Informants, Their Unreliability and the Importance of Complete Crown Disclosure Pertaining to Them: Adrian McQuade” ( [“McQuade”]; “Jailhouse Informants, Their Unreliability and the Importance of Complete Crown Disclosure Pertaining to Them: Douglas Martin” ( [“Martin”].

[8] Ibid: “Facts”; “Trials”; “The Role of the Trial Judge: Conduct of the Trial” (“Trial Judge”); Sophonow, supra note 2 at para 220.

[9] Inquiry, supra note 1: “Facts”; “Trials”; R v Sophonow, [1985] MJ No 10, 25 CCC (3d) 415 [Sophonow 2].

[10] Inquiry, supra note 1: “Facts”; “Background”; “Compensation: The Larger Community” ( [“Larger Community”].

[11] Ibid: “Facts”; “Background”; Manitoba Government News Release, “Sophonow Inquiry Report Released.” November 5, 2001, available at: [“Report Released”]; “AIDWYC: The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted” (

[12] “Report Released,” supra note 11; “News Updates: Thomas Sophonow,” (April 2003) 3 The AIDWYC Journal, p. 3.

[13] 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:

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

[15] “4. Tunnel Vision.” FTP Heads of Prosecutions Committee Report of the Working Group on the Prevention of Miscarriages of Justice:

[16] Inquiry, supra note 1: “The Evidence Regarding Timing” (; “Investigation of Terry Arnold as a Suspect” (

[17] Lauren O’Neill Shermer, Karen C Rose & Ashley Hoffman, “Perceptions and Credibility: Understanding the Nuances of Eyewitness Testimony” (2011) 27 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 183 at 183, 185.

[18] Inquiry, supra note 1: “Eyewitness Identification: The Experts’ Position Regarding Eyewitness Testimony : Elizabeth Loftus” ( [“Loftus”].

[19] Ibid: “Disclosures: Statements of Eyewitnesses Made Under Hypnosis” (

[20] R v Trochym, [2007] 1 SCR 239 at paras 13, 61, 46, 2007 SCC 6 (Deschamps J).

[21] Inquiry, supra note 1: “Loftus”; “Doerksen.”

[22] Ibid: “Eyewitness Identification: The Eyewitness Evidence and the Role of Police in Gathering and Presenting It: Norman Janower” (; “Eyewitness Identification: The Eyewitness Evidence and the Role of Police in Gathering and Presenting It: Mildred King” (

[23] Ibid: “Cheng”; “McQuade”; “Martin”; “Disclosures: Thomas Cheng” ( [“Disclosures: Cheng”]; “Disclosures: Adrian McQuade” ( [“Disclosures: McQuade”].

[24] “Understand the Causes: Informants.” The Innocence Project:

[25] Inquiry, supra note 1: “Jailhouse Informants, Their Unreliability and the Importance of Complete Crown Disclosure Pertaining to Them: Recommendations” (; “Jailhouse Informants, Their Unreliability and the Importance of Complete Crown Disclosure Pertaining to Them: Some General Comments on Jailhouse Informants” (

[26] Ontario Crown Policy Manual: “In-Custody Informers,” at

[27] Inquiry, supra note 1: “Twine”; “Cheng”; “Disclosures: Cheng”; “McQuade”; “Disclosures: McQuade”; “The Role of Crown Counsel in the Administration of Justice” (; “Jailhouse Informants, Their Unreliability and the Importance of Complete Crown Disclosure Pertaining to Them Findings Regarding the Use of Jailhouse Informants in the Thomas Sophonow Trial” (; “Disclosures: Failure to Disclose Relevant Material Regarding John Doerksen”

[28] R v Stinchcombe, [1991] 3 SCR 326, [1991] SCJ No 83; R v Driskell, [2004] MJ No 7 at para 34, 179 Man.R. (2d) 276 (Scurfield J).

[29] Inquiry, supra note 1: “Timing”; “Interrogation”; “Compensation:

The First Photo Pack Line-Up and the Police Interrogation in Vancouver of Thomas Sophonow” (; Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), c 11 ss 7, 8, 10(b), 11(d) [Charter].

[30] Charter, supra note 29 at s 11(d); Inquiry, supra note 1: “Trials.”

[31] Inquiry, supra note 1: “Compensation: The Winnipeg Remand Centre” (; “Compensation: Stony Mountain Penitentiary” (; “Compensation: Deprivation of Liberty” (

[32] Ibid: “Compensation: The Physical and Psychological Effects of the Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment”

(; “Compensation: Evidence of Philip Sophonow” (; “Compensation: Dr. Clifford Silverthorne” (; “Compensation: Joel Grymaloski” ( “Compensation: Dr. Roy O’Shaughnessy” ( “Compensation: Peter Neufeld” (

[33] Ibid: “Facts”; “Larger Community”; “Compensation: Damage to Reputation” (