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The Saint John Law Courts building. Image: Brad Perry

Wrongful murder convictions case returns to court

By Brad Perry Jan 4, 2024 | 5:00 AM

Two New Brunswick men could learn on Thursday whether they will be tried again in a decades-old Saint John murder.

Robert Mailman and Walter Gillespie were found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of George Leeman in 1984.

Leeman’s body was found by a jogger in a wooded area of the city’s Rockwood Park on Nov. 30, 1983.

Mailman and Gillespie were sentenced to life in prison without parole eligibility for at least 18 years.

In December, Canada’s justice minister ordered a new trial after “new and significant information” called into question the overall fairness of the process.

Arif Virani said he determined there are reasonable grounds to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred.

“That’s a very significant stage in proceedings like this,” said Ron Dalton, co-president of Innocence Canada, which has been working on the case for many years.

“For 40 years, Mr. Mailman and Mr. Gillespie went to bed at night as convicted murderers and the onus was on them to prove their innocence. With the convictions overturned, the onus is back on the Crown to prove their guilt.”

Dalton met the two men when he was serving his own life sentence at a federal maximum-security prison in northern New Brunswick more than three decades ago.

He was convicted in 1989 of murdering his wife, Brenda Dalton, in Newfoundland and Labrador the year prior. Dalton served eight years in prison before his appeal was heard and he was found innocent.

Dalton began writing letters on behalf of Mailman and Gillespie even before Innocence Canada was founded in 1993.

Gillespie and Mailman both had strong alibis with multiple witnesses placing them far from the crime scene on the day of the murder, according to the organization.

Their appeals to the Court of Appeal for New Brunswick were dismissed in 1998, and Gillespie was denied leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1994.

Gillespie served 21 years of his sentence before being granted parole while Mailman served 18 years. Gillespie is now 80 years old. Mailman, who is 76, is terminally ill.

“After 40 years of being convicted murderers, they are happy enough not to be,” said Dalton.

But the two still face the prospect of a new trial. They are expected to plead not guilty to the second-degree murder charges on Thursday.

From there, Dalton said the Crown could ask for the charges to be dismissed, withdraw the charges for the time being, or ask for a stay of proceedings to prepare for trial.

But the co-president of Innocence Canada said he believes there is “no real practical prospect” of the case ever going back to trial.

“Most of the police officers and witnesses who were involved originally are no longer around and all of the evidence that they used at the original trial has been largely debunked, so there’s no real evidence left to take these two people to trial,” said Dalton.

“But there’s also no ongoing active investigation into the homicide of George Leeman so that ship has also sailed.”

Dalton was unable to say what new information came to light which led to the minister’s ruling, but he hopes the organization will soon be in a position to offer more details.

“I think the people of New Brunswick deserve to know how their justice system got it so wrong 40 years ago and how it took 40 years to fix this,” he said.

“It was not only a major miscarriage of justice for Mr. Mailman and Mr. Gillespie, but there’s also George Leeman’s family. They’ve been shortchanged in this whole process as well.”