A little girl, just nine years old, was kidnapped, brutally assaulted and killed. The story of Christine Jessop is like too many such cases: a crime of opportunity, committed with heartless execution and utter disregard for the agony it would cause so many people.
The tragedy would engulf not one but two families and ultimately entangle authorities and the justice system itself in controversy.
But none of those things mattered to Christine Jessop. She was just a bright-eyed girl growing up in Queensville, Ont., a quiet little town north of Toronto. She liked baseball and riding her bike and she loved her pet beagle named Freckles — so much so that she dreamed of growing up to be a veterinarian.
Then, one Wednesday afternoon in October 1984, she planned to meet a friend after school. Instead, Christine came home, dropped off her bag and was never heard from again.
It may have been just minutes later that her mom Janet and older brother Ken came home from a dental appointment. They looked around for Christine and called her friends, and then Janet began to feel a sense of dread. So she called the police.
“You know something in the back of your mind when you can’t find them right away, you know something’s not right,” she said.
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The next day, a massive hunt was underway — it seemed like the entire town came out to scour Queensville and the fields around it. What searchers couldn’t know was that Christine was no longer nearby.
Almost three months later, on New Year’s Eve, Christine’s body was found on a rural road more than 50 kilometres from her home. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed multiple times.
Now, the Jessops knew for sure she was gone for good. Once again, much of the town turned out, this time for Christine’s funeral. She would be buried in a cemetery next to the Jessops’ home.
The location where Christine’s body was found meant that it fell to Durham Regional Police to investigate. They weren’t having much luck at first, but a few weeks later, Janet Jessop mentioned her neighbour, Guy Paul Morin, and told police he was a “weird-type guy.”
Morin lived with his parents right next door to the Jessops. The 24-year-old worked as a furniture sander and played clarinet in a community band.
He didn’t know Christine or her family well, but police interviewed him and surreptitiously collected a hair sample from him. A forensic specialist deemed the hair “microscopically similar” to a hair found in the necklace on Christine’s body.
Police suspicions grew. They had the FBI construct a profile of the killer that was, to police, a description that fit Morin. With that and other evidence, Morin was arrested. He maintained his innocence but was put on trial for murder in January 1986.
In a London, Ont., courtroom, the Crown brought forward the hair evidence and fibres found on Christine’s clothes. Prosecutors constructed a timeline to give Morin the opportunity to kidnap Christine after he got off work and before Janet Jessop got home. There was also stunning testimony from two cellmates who swore Morin confessed to the crime while in custody. And an undercover police officer told the court that Morin, while in jail, claimed to “Redrum the innocent.” (Redrum is murder spelled backwards).
Morin’s defence lawyer, Clayton Ruby, challenged the credibility of the jail cell informants. He called in experts who disputed the forensic evidence and he maintained that Morin simply did not have time to kidnap Christine because he got groceries after work.
Ruby also did something that caught many by surprise. He introduced psychiatric evidence that his client was schizophrenic. It was Ruby’s way to explain some of the unusual ways Morin spoke, including the expression “redrum the innocent.”
In the end, Ruby told the jury, there simply wasn’t convincing evidence to convict his client. And almost two years after police first interviewed Morin, the jury found him not guilty.
It was a crushing verdict for the Jessops. Christine’s father, Robert, was bitterly disappointed.
“You get damn mad is what you get because you feel the system let you down,” he said.
It was a letdown for police and prosecutors as well. If anything, the unchallenged evidence that Morin was schizophrenic only seemed to confirm their belief that Morin was the right suspect and that the jury got it wrong.
The Crown appealed the verdict. The Ontario Court of Appeal found fault in the trial judge’s instructions to the jury, and a new trial was ordered. It gave the Jessops new hope for justice. But for Morin, it meant his ordeal was not yet over.
At Morin’s second trial, much of the same evidence was produced — the hair and fibres, the alleged jail-cell confession, the timeline giving Morin the opportunity to take Christine.
Morin’s lawyer, this time Jack Pinkofsky, like Ruby before him, countered and questioned all of that evidence. But this time, the jury found Morin guilty.
Stunned, Morin blurted out in court: “I am not guilty of this crime.”
Pinkofsky, clearly shaken, stated: “Today an innocent man was found guilty.”
And yet, almost eight years after their daughter disappeared, the Jessops believed this verdict had brought justice at long last.
“Finally, somebody has paid for Christine,” Janet said. “The guilty one has paid for Christine’s murder.”
Robert Jessop said: “The only consolation of the whole affair is that it’s finally put to rest. And maybe Christine can rest in peace.”
Two trials, two different verdicts. Now it was Morin’s defenders who would seek an appeal.
But before that could happen, a new and extraordinary piece of evidence would turn this case upside down one final time. A tiny bit of DNA from Christine’s clothing changed everything.
The science of DNA testing was not available when Christine’s body was found in 1984. But a decade later, a sample could finally be extracted that proved Morin was not the killer. His conviction was overturned, and Morin was freed.
He could not hold back his relief.
“I did not kill Christine Jessop,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. And finally, as I said, DNA has exonerated me 100 per cent.”
It was an incredible moment in Canadian judicial history because it was clear that something in the criminal justice system had gone terribly wrong. Morin had spent close to two years in prison and lived for 10 years through legal uncertainty and the stigma of a terrible crime he had not committed.
The Ontario government called for a major public inquiry. Justice Fred Kaufman posed this essential question at the inquiry’s opening: “How and why did the administration of justice fail in this instance, and how can such a failure be prevented in the future?”
The inquiry would last 10 months. One hundred twenty witnesses were called: detectives, prosecutors, forensic specialists, even the jailhouse informants. And the Jessops, Janet and Christine’s brother Ken, both testified.
By now, however, the Jessops had come full circle. They no longer believed their neighbour was guilty, and they, too, wanted answers from the justice system.
One critical piece of information was the time that Janet and Ken arrived home the day Christine disappeared. They had actually first told police that it was 4:10 p.m. Police had determined that Morin could not have got home from work till 4:15 p.m., so they suggested to the Jessops they must have got home later. Both Janet and Ken changed the time, thus preserving the police theory that Morin had the opportunity to take Christine.
Janet thought she really did get home at 4:10 p.m., but she told the inquiry: “You’re believing the police and the authorities. You’re told this for so many years that, well, ‘Maybe you were wrong.’ They’re the professionals.”
Kaufman was critical of police interviewing techniques and how they collected evidence. He also determined the hair and fibre evidence were given too much weight and that there was a need for objectivity in scientific testing. He concluded the testimony of the jailhouse informants was “patently unreliable” and that “tunnel vision” affected police and prosecutors, a concept he defined as an overly narrow focus on a particular theory.
Kirk Makin is the author of Redrum the Innocent, a book that studied the Morin case in exhaustive detail. He felt police investigators may have got too close to the Jessops.
“They became like family members and that drove, I think, a lot of what went wrong in this case,” Makin said.
Makin believes the original police investigators were inexperienced, and under a great deal of pressure to solve the crime, they zeroed in on Morin.
“We ended up with what you see classically in wrongful convictions: tunnel vision,” said Makin.
At the inquiry, one police investigator apologized to Morin and one of the prosecutors, Susan MacLean, tearfully testified that she was “not proud in having been involved in the prosecution of someone who’s innocent.”
It was now summer 1997, and the chief of the Durham Regional Police, Trevor McCagherty, offered Morin, “…a full, unequivocal and unconditional apology for our mistakes which led to his wrongful conviction.”
Kaufman concluded that what occurred were “…serious errors in judgement often resulting from a lack of objectivity, rather than outright malevolence.”
Kaufman also said the case was not unique. Indeed, Morin’s exoneration had followed recent revelations of the wrongful convictions of Donald Marshall in Nova Scotia and David Milgaard in Saskatchewan.
Together, the three Ms — Milgaard, Marshall and Morin — inspired the creation of an organization known today as Innocence Canada, which investigates possible wrongful convictions in Canada. That was just one change that came about after the Inquiry.
James Lockyer, a key figure in the group and a lawyer for Morin, says from that point forward, the justice system no longer relied as much on jailhouse informants. And he said new measures were implemented to ensure forensic evidence would be more properly assessed.
“What we call junk science in the business is far less likely these days,” said Lockyer.
And one of the inquiry’s key recommendations appears to be coming about 25 years later: the federal government has announced it will set up an independent tribunal to review claims of wrongful convictions.
Makin, the author, is now with Innocence Canada and welcomes the review panel.
“There are still wrongful convictions out there,” he said. “The ingredients are always there for wrongful convictions.”
Morin knows that only too well. He seemed to emerge from his 12-year ordeal remarkably sanguine. He accepted the apologies from police and others as well as a settlement of more than $1 million from the province of Ontario to his family. He got married, had two sons and has largely stayed out of the public eye ever since.
For police, the years-long focus on Morin means the trail for the real killer of Christine Jessop long ago went cold. Hundreds of tips, interviews and DNA samples have been checked, but so much was lost over the years, including evidence from witnesses.
A one-time member of the Toronto police cold case unit, Stacy Gallant, acknowledged: “There’s memories that you can’t bring back 20, 30, 40 years later.”
But, says Gallant, one thing that could help all these years later is DNA. The same evidence that cleared Morin still exists to identify the killer. Police have even expanded the search recently to include ancestry websites.
“A family member of the killer might have tested his or her DNA,” Gallant said. “We could get lucky and follow that family line and identify who the person responsible is, alive or dead.”
Finding the person who killed her daughter is all Janet Jessop has wanted for more than 35 years.
“Where is he? That’s the question I have,” she said. “I want to find him, her, it, whomever. That’s my goal.”
That is the hardest lesson of all from the Christine Jessop investigation — a case that commanded untold legal resources for more than a decade still came up empty. The case has never been solved.
The justice system may have learned from its mistakes, but Janet Jessop is still searching for justice itself and still feeling the pain of losing Christine.
“You can’t fathom it,” she says, “You can’t unless you’ve gone through it.”
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