TRURO - Helping free an innocent man after he has spent nearly three decades behind bars is the stuff of dreams for criminal lawyers, David Layton says.
And, as the man who successfully argued the appeal that ultimately won British Columbia resident Ivan Henry his freedom, Layton obviously knows of what he speaks.
"No doubt," the Truro native said during a telephone interview shortly after last week's historical decision that saw Henry set free after 27 years behind bars for sexual assault offences for which he had been wrongly convicted.
"We're in it to do justice, so when we get a case where justice is done so clearly and such an egregious terrible wrong is righted, it really doesn't get any better than that.
"It was a tremendous feeling of elation knowing that we had secured him his freedom after so many years," he said of the moment they learned of the court's decision. "It was a great experience, great feeling. It was the kind of case that, undoubtedly, all criminal lawyers sort of dream about having and it was a very, very special, wonderful moment."
The B.C. appeals court justices were unanimous in quashing Henry's convictions and entering acquittals related to 10 counts involving rapes in Vancouver between May 1981 and June 1982.
Although Henry initially had legal representation during his trial, he ultimately decided to defend himself, a factor that Layton said led to his wrongful conviction, given the legal errors that occurred during the proceedings.
"In my view, in this case the judge and the Crown had duties that they didn't fulfill," Layton said. "So, if they had acted as they should have, even with Mr. Henry unrepresented and flailing around, I think there is a very, very good chance that there would have been an acquittal. Indeed, I think maybe the Crown wouldn't even have proceeded with the charges."
And while Henry eventually won his freedom – two weeks shy of 27 year's of wrongful imprisonment – last week's reversal of the original decision should in no way imply that Canada's adversarial judicial system is working to full potential, Layton believes.
"In my case, this does not prove that the justice system works. Although the justice system eventually exonerated Mr. Henry, a system that takes almost three decades to do that while someone's in jail obviously isn't working."
The case also highlights at least two other important points, he said. One of those is the importance of having legal representation when a person is facing a criminal trial.
Immediately following Henry's release, Layton said the man was asked by a reporter if he thought he had done the right thing by representing himself.
"He said, 'I was like a boat without oars' and that was probably an accurate summation of what he was like at the trial. He was not trained, obviously, at all in law. He had very limited education. At the time there were indications that he might have had some mental health problems," Layton said. "Although he brought out some aspects of the evidence that were helpful to the defence, he did not do anywhere near the kind of job that even a halfways-competent defence lawyer would have done."
Another important point for others who have been wrongfully convicted, he said, is never lose sight of your innocence.
"Quite clearly you can never give up hope and you have to, to the extent possible I think, avail yourself of whatever resources you have."