Ottawa firefighter Leopold Roy was stabbed to death on August 9, 1967 by an unknown man. Witnesses identified Romeo Phillion as the potential assailant but were not certain enough for a positive identification, shortly after Phillon was released. For four and half years little progress was made into the investigation of Roy’s death. It wasn’t until January 1972 that Phillion, while in police custody for an unrelated matter, confessed to murdering Roy. He eventually went on to give a sworn confession of the murder of the “the fireman”. During Phillon’s trail the Crown relied heavily upon Phillion’s confession.
Romeo’s defence counsel argued that despite these confessions, his client was innocent. He gave evidence from two experts who stated that Romeo suffered from antisocial personality disorder, and that he had a inclination “to lie and to invent stories to make him feel important.” As well on the night that he had first given his false statement Phillon had disclosed to another officer his innocence, explaining that he and his boyfriend were conspiring to get the reward money offered for identifying the assailant. Phillon maintained his innocence from that point forward. Despite these troubling facts, the jury found Romeo guilty on November 7, 1972, and he was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for ten years. Phillon appealed his case to the Supreme Court of Canada but was unsuccessful at his attempts to overturn his conviction. His appeals were dismissed.
Phillon spent 31 years incarcerated before students from the Innocence Project, at York University Osgoode Law School sought to exonerate him. On May 15, 2003, the Innocence Project and AIDWYC submitted a s. 696.1 application for ministerial review to determine whether Romeo’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice The basis for their application was a police report, not shown to the defence at the original trial, that placed Phillion 200 kilometres away at the time of the crime. Phillion was granted bail two months later while the federal justice minister investigated.
In January 2008, the Ontario Court of Appeal reopened Phillion’s case. Phillion’s former defence lawyer, Arthur Cogan, said that Phillion’s original confession to the crime was a misguided attempt to protect his gay lover from facing criminal charges. The Court of Appeal struck down Phillion’s conviction in March 2009 and ordered a new trial, although it stopped short of a full acquittal.
Phillon has been unsuccessful in his attempts to be compensated for his wrongful conviction. Although Phillon was in some ways the orchestrator of his wrongful conviction as he chose to make a false confession, his mental health problems played a role in this decision. Phillon’s attempts to secure some compensation for the 31 years he spent incarcerated were denied on May 2013, when Superior Court Justice Eva Frank dismissed his $14-million lawsuit against the Attorney General of Ontario and two of the police officers who had investigated his case. His supporters argue that regardless of his false confession, he did not deserve to spend thirty-one years of his life atoning for it.