October 18, 2018

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Convicted in likely 'miscarriage of justice,' 21 years ago, triple killer seeks bail today

Police investigate the slayings of Russell Krowetz, Stefan Zurstegge and James Gross at 319 Semple Ave. (Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Police investigate the slayings of Russell Krowetz, Stefan Zurstegge and James Gross at 319 Semple Ave. (Winnipeg Free Press files)

Twenty-one years after he was sentenced to life in prison for a gang-related triple murder, 14 years after advanced testing showed the DNA evidence that placed him at the crime scene was wrong and four months after the federal government acknowledged his case was likely a "miscarriage of justice," Robert Sanderson is asking Manitoba's court to let him out on bail.

Sanderson's case could be next in a series of wrongful convictions that have been traced back to the prosecution practices of former Manitoba Crown attorney George Dangerfield, who withheld information from the defence, relied on dubious evidence, made deals with jailhouse informants in exchange for their testimony and failed to disclose those deals to jurors in four other murder cases that later resulted in overturned convictions.

With help from Toronto-based lawyer James Lockyer, founder of the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted, Sanderson has applied for bail while his case is being investigated by the federal Justice Department's Criminal Conviction Review Group, which officially acknowledged the "miscarriage of justice" in a June 2018 letter to Sanderson, according to court documents filed by the defence in support of his bail hearing.

Sanderson is serving his life sentence in Victoria, B.C., and is set to appear in Winnipeg court this afternoon in front of Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sheldon Lanchbery, who has asked for a detailed bail plan that sets out how Sanderson would get to Winnipeg, where he would live and how he would be supervised if he's released.

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Twenty-one years after he was sentenced to life in prison for a gang-related triple murder, 14 years after advanced testing showed the DNA evidence that placed him at the crime scene was wrong and four months after the federal government acknowledged his case was likely a "miscarriage of justice," Robert Sanderson is asking Manitoba's court to let him out on bail.

Sanderson's case could be next in a series of wrongful convictions that have been traced back to the prosecution practices of former Manitoba Crown attorney George Dangerfield, who withheld information from the defence, relied on dubious evidence, made deals with jailhouse informants in exchange for their testimony and failed to disclose those deals to jurors in four other murder cases that later resulted in overturned convictions.

With help from Toronto-based lawyer James Lockyer, founder of the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted, Sanderson has applied for bail while his case is being investigated by the federal Justice Department's Criminal Conviction Review Group, which officially acknowledged the "miscarriage of justice" in a June 2018 letter to Sanderson, according to court documents filed by the defence in support of his bail hearing.

Sanderson is serving his life sentence in Victoria, B.C., and is set to appear in Winnipeg court this afternoon in front of Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sheldon Lanchbery, who has asked for a detailed bail plan that sets out how Sanderson would get to Winnipeg, where he would live and how he would be supervised if he's released.

When he was led into Lanchbery's courtroom two weeks ago in leg irons, Sanderson smiled and touched the palms of a row of his family members who sat at the front of the public gallery to see him, some for the first time in years.

Sanderson was convicted of first-degree murder along with two other men in the murders of Russell Krowetz, Stefan Zurstegge and James Gross. All three men were found dead inside Krowetz's home at 319 Semple Ave. on Aug. 6, 1996 — killings police believed were an eruption of gang violence over control of street prostitution in Winnipeg.

A hair that was purported to match Sanderson's scalp hair was found on one of the victims' feet, placing Sanderson at the crime scene, but further testing with advanced technology in 2004 showed the hair couldn't have come from Sanderson.

Although one of his co-accused, Roger Sanderson (no relation to Robert Sanderson), was ultimately acquitted after appealing and undergoing three trials, Robert Sanderson's appeal was dismissed at Manitoba's Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear his case.

After his unsuccessful attempts to appeal, it came to light that one of the Crown's key witnesses — a man named Brent Stevenson — was paid after his testimony and had all but one of his own criminal charges stayed afterward. Stevenson testified that one of the co-accused, Roger Sanderson, confessed to him and named Robert Sanderson and Robert Tews as his co-conspirators in the murders. In a deal that wasn't disclosed until Roger Sanderson's appeal in 1999, the Winnipeg Police Service paid Stevenson $15,000 and relocated him outside of Manitoba. When he testified in front of the jury, though, Stevenson said he wasn't being paid.

Dangerfield also relied on testimony from a 15-year-old girl who was working for Sanderson in the sex trade and said she saw him arm himself with a gun and a knife before going out on the night of the murders. The girl dated Stevenson after Sanderson's arrest, and his defence team argues they colluded.

"There has always been good reason to suspect collusion," Lockyer argues in Sanderson's bail application documents.

Krowetz and Zurstegge had each been shot and stabbed more than 30 times, and Gross had been stabbed and beaten. Sanderson was a prospective member of the Los Bravos gang. The other two co-accused, and Krowetz and Zurstegge, also had gang ties. Investigators linked Sanderson's car, a Mercury Cougar, to the crime scene and seized it the day the murders were discovered. Blood belonging to each of the three victims was found in the car, including on a baseball bat stashed inside.

Sanderson was arrested the same day and told police he loaned out his car and wouldn't say who borrowed it.

"I didn’t do no murder. There is nothing in that car that I know about," he said during his interview with police on Aug. 6, 1996, according to court documents.

The third co-accused, Robert Tews, also had his conviction appeal dismissed and was refused leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Robert Sanderson first asked the federal Justice Department to review his case after the new DNA tests came to light in 2004 — the same year Kyle Unger's wrongful murder conviction case was reopened for the same reason.

Unger, James Driskell, Thomas Sophonow and Frank Ostrowski all had their murder convictions overturned after being prosecuted by Dangerfield, who was a senior Crown attorney in Manitoba at the time. Ostrowski had his 1987 murder conviction declared a "miscarriage of justice" earlier this year, and he is still waiting for the Court of Appeal to decide whether he should be acquitted or whether a judicial stay of proceedings should be entered.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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History

Updated on Friday, October 12, 2018 at 2:18 PM CDT: tweaks headline

4:46 PM: Name removed.

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