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'An incredible amount of guilt': Judge opens up about gruesome murder case in new book

It’s a question he can’t escape, one which helped shape his future and still haunts him to this day: could he have prevented the murder of a young Winnipeg woman?

"I’ve always felt an incredible amount of guilt and responsibility that I missed this," provincial court Judge Ray Wyant told the Free Press in an exclusive interview Monday. "Almost a feeling of being complicit. This is the one thing in my career that has always stuck with me and never left me."

Judge Ray Wyant wrote a chapter for a new compilation book called "Tough Crimes" which includes 16 contributions from judges and lawyers across Canada.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Judge Ray Wyant wrote a chapter for a new compilation book called "Tough Crimes" which includes 16 contributions from judges and lawyers across Canada.

It has now been more than 33 years since Michele Jewell was raped, tortured, killed and dismembered by her husband, Michael Jewell.

But it is only now, for the first time, Wyant is speaking publicly about his indirect involvement. The veteran judge has written candidly about the tragedy in More Tough Crimes, a new book in which prominent legal professionals across the country were asked to share intimate details of memorable cases. His chapter is called, "The Scars that Never Heal."

"From time to time, I’ve talked about it with family, with close friends. But I felt the need to keep it alive because it’s always been alive in me and I’ve never been able to shake it," Wyant said.

Wyant graduated from the University of Manitoba and began his legal career in the late 1970s as a criminal defence lawyer, where he came to know Michael Jewell as a frequent client. The young man had several run-ins with police, mostly of a minor nature. As Wyant puts it, Jewell "provided me with some regular work and a chance to hone my craft."

Wyant also got to know his client’s wife, Michele. She worked as a nurse in the St. Boniface Hospital cardiac unit and always had her husband’s back, regularly attending his court appearances and paying cash for his legal fees.

"I could never figure out what attracted her to him. He was a scofflaw of sorts with a criminal record, and she was a bright and vibrant young woman with a warm personality and a winning smile," Wyant wrote.

Their whole world – and Wyant’s as well – would change forever in February 1984.

It had been a few years since Wyant heard from the Jewells, when he learned Michael was in custody on a dangerous driving charge and wanted to apply for bail. Then came the phone call from Michele.

"She begged me not to get him out on bail," said Wyant.

He says she told him about how the marriage had crumbled, how Michael had repeatedly physically, verbally and emotionally abused her, especially when he would drink too much, which was often. She had filed for divorce, and the hearing was just a few days away.

Wyant says he explained to her how Michael would easily make bail, regardless of which lawyer represented him. He told her everything would be OK. And then he moved on.

"I thought I was doing something really good by reassuring her and making her calm. In retrospect, you really feel like you contributed to what happened," Wyant said Monday.

Everything would not be OK.

Michael Jewell would make bail, with Wyant as his defence lawyer. Just days later – only hours before the scheduled divorce hearing – he would go to Michele’s apartment, force his way inside and commit a crime Wyant calls "horrific, violent and gruesome."

More Tough Crimes

More Tough Crimes

Jewell was later arrested in Ontario – and called Wyant asking him to represent him. He refused, instead referring the case to then-colleague Sheldon Pinx.

Jewell was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder and given a life sentence with no shot at parole for at least 25 years. Wyant would leave private practice the following year, joining the Manitoba Prosecution Service. He was appointed as a judge in 1998, becoming the province’s chief judge for seven years beginning in 2002.

Despite the passage of time, he continues to think about that phone call from Michele.

"I think you recognize that from time to time something may happen that you can’t anticipate. But as long as you’ve exercised your proper judgment, that’s all you can do. I’ve had trouble articulating… maybe I feel I didn’t exercise my proper judgment with her," said Wyant. "By feeling you dismissed it as being something that was probable. And never really thinking that something terrible could happen."

He’s gone over countless scenarios. Should he have discussed safety planning? Arranged for her to be taken to a safe spot? Declined to continue representing her husband?

Regardless, he believes the outcome eventually would have been the same.

"This isn’t about him. I’m satisfied he still would have done what he did. It’s about her. It really has more to do with that telephone call I got, from someone I knew, and not helping her," said Wyant.

Since that case, there have been major changes in all aspects of the justice system when it comes to domestic violence. But Wyant says the experience taught him more than any textbook or seminar ever could.

"Cases of domestic violence were treated much differently by prosecutors and judges and lawyers. And by police. Many of them never went to court," said Wyant. "This gave me a very tragic, first-hand look at the dynamics of domestic violence before we began to think more logically and rationally."

More Tough Crimes will be launched Wednesday in Winnipeg, 6 p.m., at Chapters Polo Festival.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikeoncrime

Read more by Mike McIntyre.

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