B.C. Court of Appeal Justice Elizabeth Bennett ruled last Friday, June 30 that Tallio’s appeal of his second-degree murder charge will proceed.
Friday’s decision, which legal observers are already calling “historic,” allows the appeal to proceed. The ruling hinged on the issue of DNA evidence, with the judge saying new testing had the potential to either exonerate Tallio or conclusively re-affirm he was guilty.
If Tallio’s appeal were to be successful, it would make Canadian legal history as the longest prison sentence served by someone found to be wrongly convicted.
Phillip James Tallio was arrested and charged in 1983 with the murder of a 22-month-old girl on a First Nations reserve near Bella Coola. Tallio, who was 17 at the time, initially pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, but nine days into a jury trial he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, which brought a sentence of life in prison with no parole eligibility for 10 years.
Tallio’s lawyers argued Monday in support of his application to withdraw his guilty plea 33 years after sentencing. Much of Monday’s hearing pertained to DNA evidence.
Tallio’s appeal effort, eight years in the making, was initiated by the University of B.C.’s Innocence Project at the Allard School of Law. Tallio’s is the first file from the Project, now in its 10th year, to make its way into court.
For the past eight years, lawyers have been working to mount an appeal for Tallio, but he first needed permission of the court to bring an appeal more than 30 years past the deadline to file an appeal. Tallio had 30 days from the time he was sentenced to file a notice of appeal.
Bennet also lifted a decades long publication ban in the appeal in response to an application by Postmedia and the APTN challenging the ban, citing that although it is painful for the families involved, the release of the information is in the public interest.
She lifted much of the ban that had been in place since last March and noted that “media is relied upon to bring information about the court’s proceedings to the public.”
In her ruling, the judge also spoke to the concerns of the victim’s parents, but ultimately declined to grant the publication ban they sought.
“I understand, as best I can, how deeply these proceedings must hurt them. However, this case has significant public interest given that there is an allegation of a wrongful conviction,” she said in her ruling.
“In my view, the interests of justice demand that Mr. Tallio be permitted to bring his application for further DNA testing and to go forward with this appeal generally,” Bennett said in granting the filing extension. “I am satisfied there is ample evidence to demonstrate that the issue of DNA testing is a viable ground for appeal.”
Tallio’s family was on hand as the judge delivered her ruling.
“I feel awesome, I feel so relieved,” said his daughter, Honey Hood. “I know it’s only the first step, but it’s the biggest step. Now my dad will get what he deserves, 34 years later.”
“I will be able to get to know my father, and he will get to know his grandchildren, my children, who he’s never met,” Hood said hopefully, adding she wanted to get home to hug her children.
With files from Postmedia