Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Spindler Seeks Leave to the SCC

More often then not, provides commentary on decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) or cases that the Court has granted leave to appeal. This post focuses on the plight of Donald Spindler, who is now 72 and was convicted of second degree murder in 2001. Spindler is applying for leave to appeal to the SCC with the assistance of the Innocence Project. “For every wrongful conviction, a guilty person is free,” says Karen Rehner, a second year law student working on Mr. Spindler’s file under the supervision of Innocence Project Director Professor Alan Young.

The Disappearance of Irene MacDonald 

Spindler was involved and lived with Irene MacDonald for about two years prior to her disappearance after Labour Day weekend in 1978. A Missing Person’s Report was filed but no charges were laid after the initial investigation. Ms. MacDonald’s body was never found and there was no direct evidence found to suggest she was killed. Spindler contends that after an argument on September 5, 1978 MacDonald moved out. He claims she returned to the house to pick up her belongings and they later met so he could reimburse her for her furniture.

“Project Angel” was launched by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) with the goal of solving 20 cold case murders in London Ontario. Under Project Angel, the OPP reopened MacDonald’s case in 1998. The project was disbanded in 2000, since only one murder was solved prior to Spindler’s trial.

The Conviction of Donald Spindler

In 2001 Donald Spindler was convicted by a jury of second degree in the death of Irene MacDonald. The Crown’s theory is that Spindler murdered MacDonald, and disposed of her body by pouring lye over it. This is based on the testimony of two witnesses. Firstly, Spindler’s ex-wife Katherine McCoy testified at trial that Spindler had previously threatened her and claimed he could get rid of a body by pouring lye over it. The second Crown witness was William Tanton, who dated Spindler’s daughter during the 1980s. Tanton testified Spindler told him that he had choked Irene and disposed of her body around Southampton by pouring acid on it.

There are credibility issues with both of the Crown’s key witnesses. McCoy admitted to lying to the police including on sworn statements and faced obstruction of justice charges. Tanton’s criminal record includes several crimes of dishonesty and he has been described as a “career informant.” Tanton stated at trial that two of his convictions would be coming off of his record.

The Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed Spindler’s appeal (see 2004 CanLII 48648), based on the jury instruction laid out in R v W(D), [1991] 1 SCR 742, and the “Vetrovec” warning found in Vetrovec v The Queen, [1982] 1 SCR 811.

The Innocence Project

Enter the Innocence Project. The Innocence Project at Osgoode Hall Law School is one of several similar programs across Canada that assist individuals who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Law students work under the direction of faculty to seek proof for the claim of innocence. Individuals apply to the Innocence Project and their cases are initially assessed based on the following criteria:

  • A conviction for a serious offence
  • All rights of appeal have been exhausted
  • A claim of factual innocence is seriously advanced
  • Alternative resources are unavailable

Ms. Rehner is assisting with Mr. Spindler’s appeal. Innocence Project students gain high level experience by finding new evidence and developing legal arguments required to prove the innocence of individuals who feel they were wrongfully accused. Six Innocence Project students have assisted with the Spindler file since 2005.

Application for Leave to Appeal to the SCC

The central issue with the Crown’s theory of the case is its reliance on circumstantial evidence from two witnesses with questionable credibility. This issue is exacerbated by the fact there was no body or forensic evidence discovered. The Innocence Project staff are preparing a 20-page factum for submission to the SCC.

With regards to the chances of success of the leave to appeal application, Ms. Rehner says there are novel legal issues of national importance connected with this case. She understands that the SCC does not normally provide reasons when applications for leave are dismissed. As a result, denied applicants will never know the grounds on which their application was denied. This could be frustrating for applicants when there are substantive arguments combined with procedural issues and limitation periods.

The fate of Spindler’s SCC application will not be known for several months. Through her involvement with the Innocence Project, Ms. Renher has already observed the drawbacks of the narrow approach taken by law enforcement and the Crown to some murder investigations. She feels this can lead to both wrongful convictions and or unsolved cases. If all goes well for Mr. Spindler, could be reporting on his hearing at the SCC in the near future.

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