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A Winnipeg convicted killer whose case is being investigated as a "likely" miscarriage of justice has been denied bail while he awaits the federal justice minister's review of his case.
Robert Sanderson is headed back to minimum security at William Head Institution in B.C., where he has been serving a life sentence for a 1996 triple murder investigators believed was gang-related. Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sheldon Lanchbery made the decision Wednesday.
"Sanderson's release is not warranted," Lanchbery said, pointing to incriminating evidence against Sanderson that was introduced during his trial in 1997. "If new information becomes available," it could be brought back to court and Sanderson's bail application could be reconsidered, he said.
Sanderson's case was handled by then-senior Crown prosecutor George Dangerfield. Four other murder convictions Dangerfield helped secure have since been overturned following justice ministers' reviews: Thomas Sophonow, James Driskell, Kyle Unger and Frank Ostrowski. Ostrowski was released on bail in 2009 and is waiting to find out whether he'll be formally acquitted after the Crown acknowledged a miscarriage of justice in his case in May 2018.
"I find this case is not as compelling as the evidentiary foundation that was present in Driskell and Unger at this stage in the process," Lanchbery said. He noted the judge who released Ostrowski on bail described his case as weaker than previous wrongful-conviction cases, "and I find the applicant's case is weaker than Ostrowski's."
The federal Justice Department's criminal conviction group is looking into Sanderson's case after his defence team applied for a ministerial review of his conviction last year. A June 2018 letter to Sanderson from the department, included as part of the defence's bail application, says "it has been determined that there may be a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred in this matter."
Defence lawyer James Lockyer said the decision is disappointing, and that Sanderson "had his hopes up" that he would be released to live under the supervision of the John Howard Society of Victoria. Now, he'll continue to wait for the ministerial review. He's currently eligible for day parole and is expected to be eligible for full parole in 2021.
"There's a long wait, potentially," Lockyer said.
Sanderson was arrested in connection to the brutal killings of three men in a Semple Street home after police linked his car to the crime scene. Russell Krowetz, Stefan Zurstegge and James Gross 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. All three men were tortured and stabbed and two were shot. To this day, the Crown believes multiple killers were responsible and that there is important evidence implicating Sanderson.
In his decision Wednesday, Lanchbery agreed, citing testimony from a then-15-year-old girl who was working for Sanderson in the sex trade. She testified she saw him arm himself with a gun and a knife before going out on the night of the murders. The girl testified she saw Sanderson with one of the co-accused, Robert Tews, on the night of the murder and said she saw them return to the Stock Exchange Hotel in the wee hours afterward. Sanderson had a paper bag filled with gold jewelry purported to belong to one of the victims, and the girl testified he told her, "Russ won’t need it anymore." She testified Sanderson told her he'd had to take off his vest and shoes because they had blood all over them, and she said she heard him and Tews talking about cleaning blood out of Sanderson's car.
The defence argues the girl was colluding with the Crown's other key witness, Brent Stevenson, with whom she was in a relationship after Sanderson's arrest. Lanchbery dismissed that suggestion Wednesday as "nothing more than mere suspicion." Crown attorney Mark Kantor previously argued the suggestion of collusion was fully explored during Sanderson's 1997 trial.
Blood from all three victims was found in Sanderson's vehicle, including on a bloody baseball bat, but Sanderson told police he loaned out his car on the night of the murders and wouldn't "rat" out who was using it.
"I’m not saying my car wasn’t there. I wasn’t there," Sanderson told police when he was interviewed the day after the killings.
A jury eventually convicted Sanderson on three counts of first-degree murder, likely based largely on incriminating witness testimony and now-debunked DNA evidence that placed him at the crime scene. One of his two co-accused was eventually acquitted after undergoing an appeal process and two retrials, but his attempts to appeal his conviction were rejected.
In 2004, advanced DNA testing proved the hair analysis — relied upon by Dangerfield — was wrong. A hair found on one of the victim's feet at the crime scene did not belong to Sanderson, contrary to what the jury was led to believe.
After his unsuccessful attempts to appeal, it came to light that Stevenson was paid by police to help with relocation costs. Stevenson testified 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 the witness $15,000 and relocated him outside of Winnipeg.
During the bail hearing, Kantor told Lanchbery the deal — which the Crown's office didn't find out about until 1999 — was not made in exchange for Stevenson's testimony. The Crown disclosed it to Roger Sanderson's lawyers for his appeal, but didn't tell the lawyers for the other two convicted killers.
Lanchbery said the payment should have been disclosed, but he didn't agree with the defence that the non-disclosure may have contributed to a miscarriage of justice.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.