In 1981 Thomas Sophonow was wrongfully accused and convicted of the murder of Barbara Stoppel. On December 23, 1981 the sixteen-year-old Stoppel was found strangled at the Ideal Donut Shop where she had been working in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She died shortly afterwards. Sophonow became a suspect after eyewitnesses described seeing a man matching Sophonow’s appearance and he was twice picked out of a police photo line-up. Once in custody he was subject to aggressive interrogation tactics that would now be considered a violation of human rights as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The tactics were so aggressive, that Sophonow himself, came to believe he was the murderer, despite the fact that he could not have been. Following this interrogation Sophonow was arrested. While in police custody the officers present, claimed that Sophonow made some incriminating admissions, disclosing specific knowledge about the locking mechanism at the donut shop in question. As well physical evidence, not properly tested, mistakenly suggested that Sophonow was responsible for the murder. This evidence was presented by the Crown, at Sophonow’s first trial in October 1982. The defence argued that Sophonow could not have been the murderer, as eye witnesses had observed Stoppel interacting with the suspect as if she knew him right before her murder occurred, and Sophonow and Stoppel had been strangers. The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict and a mistrial declared. Sophonow second trial began February 21 1983. The same evidence was presented by the Crown, but this time the jury reached a unanimous verdict and Sophonow was found guilty of first-degree murder. This conviction was appealed successfully by the defence. It was overturned due to the findings that the trial judge had failed to properly present the jury with the defence’s position in a fair and unbiased manner and therefore Sophonow had not received a fair trial. At his third trial, beginning on February 4, 1985 the jury again found Sophonow guilty. Again the defence appealed this decision arguing that as at his second trial, the third trial judge had not presented his theory of the case to the jury in a fair manner. Again the Court of Appeal agreed and on December 12, 1985, the Court found that Sophonow’s third trial had also been unfair.
Sophonow was not subject to a fourth trial as it was the Court’s conclusion that because he had already had three trials and had spent 45 months incarcerated, it would be more just to acquit Sophonow rather than subjecting him to a further trial. On December 12, 1985, Thomas was acquitted officially. Unsatisfied and intent on proving his innocence Sophonow went on to fight for his exoneration. It wasn’t until June 8, 2000, that Sophonow was successful. He was able to demonstrate an ironclad alibi that proved it was impossible that he was responsible for the murder. Assisted by demonstrations of faulty key eyewitness testimony, it was enough to secure his exoneration. The Attorney General of Manitoba apologized to Thomas for the “three trials and two appeals, and … 45 months in jail” that he had had to endure “for an offence he did not commit.” Sophonow was compensated for his wrongful conviction and the miscarriage of justice in the amount of $2.3 million. Justice Cory noted, “To wrongfully convict someone of a crime, particularly that of murder, is to forever damage the reputation of that person.”