December 10, 2019

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Settlement reached in wrongful conviction lawsuit with Manitoba man

Kyle Unger near where he grew up just outside of Roseisle.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kyle Unger near where he grew up just outside of Roseisle.

WINNIPEG - Kyle Unger spent 14 years in prison for the grisly slaying of a teenage girl before his case was deemed a likely wrongful conviction and he was acquitted.

On Monday, almost 29 years after the killing, the Manitoba government said it had settled a multi-million-dollar lawsuit brought by Unger, now in his late 40s.

"I can confirm a settlement has been reached. However, the terms of this agreement are confidential," Caitlin MacGregor, press secretary for Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen, wrote in an email.

Unger's lawyer, Gavin Wolch, also cited a confidentiality requirement. He said the end of the ordeal is hard to put into words.

"Kyle is a real person and he's lived through unimaginable frustration, to say it very lightly, in his life and I'm not sure words can capture it," Wolch said from Calgary.

"I hope it does become over for him, but I think if that I were in his position, I'm not so sure it would ever really be."

A media spokesperson for the federal justice department could not be reached for comment.

Unger was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1990 death of 16-year-old Brigitte Grenier at a music festival in Roseisle, Man., southwest of Winnipeg.

Grenier had been beaten and mutilated, and her body was left in a creek.

Kyle Unger smiles as he talks to media outside a Winnipeg courthouse on October 23, 2009. Kyle Unger spent 14 years in prison for the grisly slaying of a teenage girl before his case was deemed a likely wrongful conviction and he was acquitted. On Monday, almost 29 years after the killing, the Manitoba government said it had settled a multi-million-dollar lawsuit brought by Unger, now in his late 40s. "I can confirm a settlement has been reached. However, the terms of this agreement are confidential," Caitlin MacGregor, press secretary for Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen, wrote in an email. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Kyle Unger smiles as he talks to media outside a Winnipeg courthouse on October 23, 2009. Kyle Unger spent 14 years in prison for the grisly slaying of a teenage girl before his case was deemed a likely wrongful conviction and he was acquitted. On Monday, almost 29 years after the killing, the Manitoba government said it had settled a multi-million-dollar lawsuit brought by Unger, now in his late 40s. "I can confirm a settlement has been reached. However, the terms of this agreement are confidential," Caitlin MacGregor, press secretary for Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen, wrote in an email. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Unger was sentenced to life in prison, but as the years went by the evidence used to convict him unravelled.

DNA tests in 2005 showed a hair found on Grenier's sweater, which an RCMP expert had testified belonged to Unger, actually came from someone else. It was the only physical evidence linking him to Grenier's body.

The only witness who claimed to have seen Unger kill the girl was his co-accused, Timothy Houlahan, who committed suicide in 1994.

Another key piece of evidence — a confession Unger gave to undercover police officers — also came into question. The officers posed as gang members looking to recruit Unger and said he had to prove to them he had committed a serious crime if he wanted to join the gang.

Unger told them he had killed Grenier but got several facts wrong, including the existence of a bridge at the festival site that was constructed several months after the murder.

In 2009, the federal justice minister determined the conviction was a likely miscarriage of justice and, months later, Unger was formally acquitted of the crime.

Unger said he had confessed to the killing out of desperation.

"When you're young, naive and desperate for money, they hold a lot of promises to you. So you say and do what you have to do to survive, just like in prison," Unger told reporters in 2009.

Two years later, Unger filed a $14.5-million lawsuit against the provincial and federal governments and the RCMP.

The defendants initially fought the lawsuit. The federal government, in a statement of defence, said it and the RCMP had acted in good faith. It also said the hair analysis was acceptable practice at the time, before advanced DNA tests were available.

Similar hair evidence was used in the case of James Driskell, who was wrongly convicted of the 1990 murder of Perry Dean Harder north of Winnipeg.

Driskell was convicted partly because an RCMP expert testified that three hairs found in Driskell's van belonged to the victim. Years later, DNA tests showed the hairs came from three different people.

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