Freedom still remains out of reach for two sisters who have spent nearly 30 years in prison for what they say are wrongful murder convictions after a judge reserved his decision on whether they should get bail while awaiting the outcome of a federal review.
“It’s sad that we couldn’t be free today … but today I’m still keeping on with the hope and faith,” Odelia Quewezance said Wednesday outside Court of King’s Bench in Yorkton, Sask.
Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance were convicted of second-degree murder in the 1993 stabbing death of 70-year-old Anthony Dolff near Kamsack, Sask.
Lawyers for the sisters told court during the two-day bail hearing that the women are victims of systemic racism in the justice system and false confessions.
The Crown prosecutor argued that even if there were issues with the police investigation, there was still enough evidence to show the sisters were involved in the murder.
The federal Justice Department started a review of the case last year, saying there may be a reasonable basis to conclude there was a miscarriage of justice.
The sisters’ lawyer James Lockyear said the all-male police force that arrested the sisters did not follow a court order to have the women transferred to Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert, Sask., and instead housed them in police station cells for four days.
“That order was just ignored,” Lockyear said.
He said neglecting the order demonstrates the attitudes the sisters encountered “in a police station full of white men.”
The sisters from the Keeseekoose First Nation have always maintained their innocence. Another person, who was a youth at the time, confessed to the killing in a statement that was recorded by police, Lockyear said.
Lockyear said statements the sisters allegedly made to officers over multiple days in the police cells were never recorded.
Odelia Quewezance was 20 years old and her sister was 18 when they were arrested.
Both sisters attended residential schools. Court was told that Odelia Quewezance ran away after she was repeatedly sexually abused by a staff member.
Lawyers said Nerissa Quewezance suffers from scoliosis linked to physical abuse as a child before her bones were fully formed. She has arthritis from kneeling too long on the hard ground of the school.
Odelia Quewezance turned 51 on Wednesday and said that between her time in prison and residential school, she has spent most of her life confined.
“I’m praying to be free so I can live my life now,” she said outside court.
Crown prosecutor Kelly Kaip said it has also been a difficult and distressing 30 years for Dolff’s family.
“I don’t want us to forget how much this haunts his loved ones,” she said.
Kaip said the sisters and the youth went to the farmer’s house. She said the original trial heard how the sisters found an envelope with $700 and took it. Violence broke out soon after Dolff realized it was missing.
She said he was beaten with a kettle, a whisky bottle and other items found in the home before he was stabbed.
“I don’t want us to forget for one second how much violence it took,” Kaip said.
Members of Dolff’s family quietly cried in the courtroom while Kaip read details of the killing.
Kaip said there has been no decision on whether there were issues with policing or if the confessions were coerced. She argued the sisters should not be released as there’s too much risk and both have a history of breaching conditions.
Odelia Quewezance received day parole last year with strict conditions. She is currently staying at the YWCA in Regina. Nerissa Quewezance’s parole was denied and she has remained behind bars at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women in British Columbia.
If released, Odelia Quewezance would live with her partner of 26 years and their children in a small Saskatchewan community, court heard.
Her sister wants to stay with Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin in his Saskatoon home if she were to get a conditional release.
A criminal conviction review can take years. When it is over, a report and legal advice will be prepared for the federal justice minister. The minister can then order a new trial or appeal, or dismiss the application if he is not convinced there has been a miscarriage of justice.
The judge asked for more information on what conditions the sisters would have if they were released on bail. Lawyers said they do not expect a judgment to be reached for six to eight weeks.
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press