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Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry

By Joan McEwen

Review By Bonnie Reilly Schmidt

March 8, 2016

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016-2017  | p. 173-174

When Ivan Henry’s wife Jessie contacted Vancouver Police Department (VPD) detectives in 1982, she initiated a series of events that would see her husband spend the next twenty-seven years in prison for crimes he maintained he did not commit.

Henry’s ordeal began just four months after mass murderer Clifford Olsen pleaded guilty to eleven counts of first-degree murder for crimes committed in the Vancouver area. Despite Olsen’s arrest and conviction, Vancouver remained a city on edge. Jessie’s telephone call came at a fortuitous time. In exchange for information about her husband, Jessie received $1,000 from the VPD’s “fink fund” and the police had their suspect (192-93).

Joan McEwen’s Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry is the unsettling story of how corruption within the British Columbia justice system led to Ivan Henry’s wrongful conviction and his decades-long fight to clear his name. Henry was convicted in 1983 of being the “rip-off rapist,” so-called because the perpetrator claimed to be looking for someone who owed him money before covering his victims’ faces with a pillow and sexually assaulting them (23-28).

McEwen, a lawyer who practices labour law in Vancouver, quickly immerses her readers in the complexities of a criminal justice system gone awry. With great detail, McEwen outlines the procedural and evidentiary errors made by the police, the crown prosecutor, and the trial judge, including a lack of medical and forensic evidence (248; 305), faulty instructions to the jury (223; 235; 242), and the lack of physical evidence linking Henry to the crimes (311-12).

The extent of the malicious prosecution against Henry is observable in a photograph of a physical line-up that was doctored by the VPD (Insert 2). It depicts Henry, who claimed he was never in a line-up, being held in a headlock by a uniformed officer while surrounded by a number of VPD officers in plainclothes who are handcuffed and smiling (264-71). The photo formed the core of the evidence used to convict him and represents an egregious violation of Henry’s Charter rights.

McEwen also illustrates how Henry, who acted as his own attorney during the trial, failed to pursue specific lines of questioning that would have drawn attention to the wrongful evidence being used against him. She describes how a competent lawyer would have continued questioning witnesses just at the point when Henry stopped (66-67; 84-85; 96-99).

What the book lacks is an explanation as to why Crown Counsel, the judge, and the police worked to convict Henry. But this is not McEwen’s fault. She, too, seeks answers by conducting interviews with the preliminary judge (208-10), three VPD officers (193), legal aid lawyer John White (212-13), two of the jurors (221), three of the victims (226-27), and Henry himself. Despite her best efforts a reasonable explanation remains elusive, suggesting that Henry’s claims about being framed are accurate.

Perhaps the greatest injustice was committed against the victims who, to date, have not seen their attacker(s) tried and convicted. Indeed, the rapes continued after Henry was in prison, with the perpetrator using the same modus operandi Henry was accused of using (186; 282; 285). Donald James McRae, Henry’s neighbour, remained a suspect for decades but was only arrested and tried in 2005 when he was sentenced to six years in prison for an unrelated sexual assault (297).

Following his release, Ivan Henry sued three members of the VPD, the City of Vancouver, the federal government, and the Province of British Columbia for wrongful conviction (313-15). Since the book’s publication, Henry has reached a financial settlement with the City, the VPD, and Ottawa. The provincial government is still fighting the lawsuit.

Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry
Joan McEwen
Victoria: Heritage House: 2014. 344 pp. $22.95 paper