Their voices are still being heard: Profiling Wrongful Conviction Day's virtual event
"The idea is to recognize the problem of wrongful conviction and to bring attention to the harms that it causes for people who are wrongfully convicted." – Carolyn Yule, Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph.
On October 1st, 2020, the University of Guelph hosted its Wrongful Conviction Day (WCD) event for the third year in a row with this year's guest speaker, Robert Baltovich. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year it was hosted virtually with the help of Carolyn Yule. Based on a recent interview with Carolyn Yule, we were able to gain further insight into the planning and logistics of WCD being held virtually.
Innocence Canada created WCD on October 2nd, 2014, and events have been taking place throughout October ever since. The hope is that by discussing these issues, there will be a positive change within these systems and wrongful convictions can be prevented. With the support of Win Wahrer, one of the founders at Innocence Canada, the University of Guelph's WCD has continued to be a success. This event has also fostered activism and continues to gain momentum as some Guelph alumni are actively involved with Innocence Canada.
"We approached the marketing similarly this year as in a non-COVID year," said Yule. A University of Guelph poster was created and distributed to different sources, which included emails to the Criminal Justice and Public Policy (CJPP) undergraduate program, as well as to graduate students and faculty who teach in related fields.
"We reached out through our informal networks and basically with the poster said, 'spread the word far and wide, everybody is welcomed to attend,'" stated Yule. Among these networks were contacts that work at high schools and workers in the community like the police chief and clergy. Media coverage was also a valuable asset in terms of marketing this event as one exoneree in the audience was able to reach out to Toronto Press to cover the event.
The event had a few exonerees in the audience this year, including Maria Shepherd and Steven Truscott, who were both wrongly convicted of murder. "It's kind of nice to see support from the exonerees growing, as this builds momentum," said Yule.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the use of virtual platforms for events such as WCD. Hosting this event virtually was beneficial considering travel did not need to be arranged and there were no limitations to audience capacity. However, disadvantages do arise in this new virtual world we live in. With technology comes the potential issues of zoom-bombing, losing internet connection, and/or technology dying. Not to mention, it is challenging to convey the intensity and seriousness of wrongful convictions through webcams to individuals that might be lying in their bedrooms, multitasking, etc. The feeling that this type of event has in person is difficult to replicate on a virtual platform in which there is minimal eye contact and shared body language. Many exonerees have experienced significant trauma and speaking at an event as such, "can be re-victimizing." Despite some of these obstacles, Yule stated that this event exceeded her expectations, and she is glad they hosted it.
We are all experiencing this COVID-19 pandemic in different ways; however, we are all going through it. Yule shared meaningful insight about the pandemic by noting that, "[these events] help refocus that life carries on, it will carry on and we will get back to some semblance of what we had before."
It is safe to say that the WCD event was nothing but a success. If not for the dedication of Professor Yule, Win Wahrer, and other faculty members involved in planning and hosting this event, it would not have been possible. Furthermore, we were truly honoured to have Robert Baltovich articulate his story and even highlight how, to this day, he is still searching for Liz's murderer.
For those interested in wrongful convictions and Robert Baltovich's journey to justice, we encourage you to visit the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences YouTube channel to watch this year's Wrongful Conviction Day event.