Canada acquits man wrongly jailed for over a decade over teen girl's murder

Friday, October 23, 2009

Canadian authorities have dropped charges against 38-year-old Kyle Unger, who has served more than a decade in jail for a murder he did not commit. Hair from 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier's body was used to convict him and has since been linked to someone else.

Downtown Winnipeg seen from the The Forks
Image: emples.

The case began at a rock concert near Winnipeg on June 23, 1990. Grenier attended the concert but then failed to return home. Her naked body was recovered from a nearby creek the following day in the grounds of the Roseisle ski resort that hosted the event. She had been beaten and sexually assaulted.

Unger later confessed to an undercover police officer posing as a drug dealer, and was charged alongside Timothy Houlahan. Both were found guilty, with Unger's conviction helped by male hair recovered from the victim, which a forensics expert testified had come from the innocent man.

Unger, who had been imprisoned since being charged in 1991, was sentenced on February 29, 1992 to a minimum of 25 years imprisonment. The following year the Manitoba Court of Appeal dismissed his appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear it. In 1994 Houlahan's conviction was overturned and he was released on bail pending a retrial; the 21-year-old chose instead to take his own life.

In 2003 the area's Forensic Evidence Review Committee (FERC) began to look at cases involving hair samples. The next year authorities reported that they were able to relocate the hair used in the Grenier case, which they had previously believed to have been destroyed. Several months afterwards FERC said that the hair was not Unger's.

It would be another year before Justice Holly Beard ruled in November 2005 that Unger should be released while his case was reviewed. On November 24, 2005 he was set free after nearly 14 years wrongly imprisoned. The review was completed this year and in March the conviction was overturned. A retrial was ordered by Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

It's the first day of the rest of my life, a new beginning.

—Kyle Unger

However, prosecutors today decided that a retrial was highly unlikely to result in a conviction owing to the fact that no physical evidence links Unger to the slaying. He was formally acquitted of first-degree murder today. Grenier's family have maintained that they believe in his guilt.

"It's the first day of the rest of my life, a new beginning," Unger said after leaving court today. He now lives in British Columbia. He said he was not angry over what happened to him, just upset. "When you feed off anger it just takes more from you. They already took my younger years away from me, why let them have my mind?" He says of his confession to the men he thought were gangsters that it was because he wanted to work for them: "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."

"Right now we are joyful that the man has an acquittal," said Unger's lawyer, Hersh Wolch. "This is a momentous day. The (justice) minister ... rarely sends the matter to a retrial. Rarely. Tell me of one. And then an acquittal? It's virtually unheard of. It is unheard of. So this is huge."

Manitoba's Attorney General Dave Chomiak says he will not be compensated despite his wrongful conviction because of his false confession. Prosecutor George Dangerfield, who convicted the pair in 1992, is having his cases reviewed owing to being involved in two previous separate miscarriages of justice — wrongful murder convictions against Thomas Sophonow and James Driskell.