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When cops go bad

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There's been some gnashing of teeth lately with a jury's acquittal of Winnipeg police officers Const. Darrel Selley and Const. Kris Overwater.

Those on one side say there was plenty of evidence to convict the pair of shooting an unarmed drug dealer as he ran away from them. There was also plenty of evidence that the pair cooked up a story of how the thief grabbed one of their guns.

Those on the other side say: "Who are we to question the actions of two cops on the mean streets of Winnipeg?"

There's also the issue of a jury convicting a police officer of a crime allegedly committed during the performance of his or her duty.

It's not the first time this question has been raised. Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair asked the same thing in a May 25, 1999 column on the trial of city police officer Robert Lesuk

Unless the jurors in Selley and Overwater speak up about what went on during their deliberations--something that's illegal under Canada's justice system--we'll never know what they were thinking. (Judges can talk about their reasons for a decision because they're judges, but jurors can't--kind of a mixed up, out-of-date, patronizing rule if you ask me.) 

There will also be no appeal, so the can of worms of what happened the night of the shooting won't be re-opened again.

Some of the reasons behind the shooting have been debated on former homicide detective Jim Jewell's blog The Power of Words. Was what happened that night a sign of poor recruitment and lack of training? Or a sign of something else?

Ex-deputy chief Menno Zacharias has also chimed in on the topic in the comment section of Jewell's blog. The blog and Zacharias' take offers a window into policing in Winnipeg, a small window.

While case against Selley and Overwater is the most recent, there have been several others over the years where juries came to different conclusions.

The two that stand out for me are:

Const. Daryl Evans

Evans and other cops were accused of turning a blind eye to a break and enter ring that operated in the city in the late 1980s.

B&E ringleader Martin Shaver told a jury that he had agreement with Evans that only the accomplices he recruited for break-ins between 1989 and 1991 would be arrested, while he would be allowed to escape, sometimes with stolen goods.

Evans and the other three officers were acquitted of 33 theft-related charges following a 14-week jury trial in 1994. They returned to the police service.

Evans was convicted of making a false statement under oath, but that was later overturned by the Manitoba Court of Appeal. He eventually won nearly $250,000 in compensation from the police service, which had suspended him following his arrest.

Evans is no longer a police officer.


Jerry Stolar and Barry Neilsen

This is the most infamous case of police wrongdoing in the city's history, a case of two cops murdering a man to silence him about their part in running their own secret B&E ring when they were on the job.

Despite all the other charges against police officers in Manitoba, nothing holds a candle to what Barry Nielsen and Jerry Stolar did.

In July 1983 a jury found both guilty of second-degree murder for killing Paul Clear after 23 hours of deliberation, at the time the longest period a jury's been out. Clear was beaten to death 11:30 p.m. on Monday, August 17, 1981. He was stripped of his ID, wrapped in a boat canvas and buried in a shallow grave outside the city which had likely been dug in advance.

His body was found three weeks later by a man and his son who were out hunting for hazel-nuts in a wooded area about 40 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

Nielsen was Clear's brother-in-law, their respective wives being sisters.

The Crown argued Nielsen killed Clear, with Stolar's help, because they believed he was a police informer who was responsible for telling police about their involvement in break and enters. It was later shown that Clear was not the informant.

The full case against them is outlined in a 1984 decision by the Manitoba Court of Appeal.

Stolar and Nielsen were both sentenced to life in prison with having to serve a minimum 15 years before becoming eligible for parole.

But that wasn't the end of it. Not by a long shot.

The Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Stolar in March 1988. That jury trial started a year later and this time saw his former mistress and eyewitness to the crime testify against him.

She told the jury she watched Stolar hold Clear while Nielsen hit him repeatedly with a hammer.

Stolar was convicted a second time. His parole eligibility was increased to 20 years.

He was released on full parole March 7, 2005.

"You still have difficulties to fully accept responsibility for your criminal behavior," the parole board said.

"The psychologist notes that your offence does not indicate a pattern of violent behavior. The results from the clinical tools indicate that you present a medium risk of violent recidivism in the long term. Your personality suggests that you are now more at risk for "white collar" fraud and callous manipulation of others than reactive and impulsive violence."

Neilsen was granted full parole release in March 1997.

Neilsen denied his role in killing Clear throughout his sentence, parole board documents say.

"You admit to being in a police theft ring, but throughout your sentence you have consistently denied that you committed murder," the parole board said.

"The murder has been described as situational and you are assessed a low risk to re-offend. By all accounts you have reintegrated in a positive manner and there are no issues with your supervision."

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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