Globe and Mail

Canada's prisoner of conscience

By MARGARET WENTE
Thursday, August 30, 2001 – Print Edition, Page A15
The Globe and Mail

Jamie Nelson chooses words with care, and speaks more reflectively than most people. But he's had more time than most people to reflect.

He spent 1,047 days in jail for a crime he didn't commit.

"I didn't really have a very good look at Millhaven until I took the first step out of the van," he remembers. "There were gun towers, patrol vehicles, dogs. And then, to see the inmates, to see how I was going to live . . . it was terrifying."

Five years ago, at age 28, Mr. Nelson was sent to a federal penitentiary because a woman accused him of a brutal rape. There was no independent evidence; it was her word against his, and the judge believed her. What helped to tip the scale against him was his criminal record. He had just got out of jail for a lesser assault against the same woman.

That one was fictitious too.

Last Friday, the Ontario Court of Appeal reversed the verdict against Jamie Nelson after a mass of new evidence came to light. It turns out that his tormenter is a serial liar who has falsely accused many other men of various offences and created public mischief for years.

"That evidence was the best present I'd ever received," he says. "It meant I wasn't crazy after all."

His accuser was the best friend of Mr. Nelson's common-law wife, and was on his wife's side during a bitter custody dispute for Mr. Nelson's son. In 1992, she accused him of sexually assaulting the boy, but changed her mind. In 1994, she accused him of physically assaulting her and made it stick. He drew 60 days. In 1996, she accused him of another physical assault, and he served 120 days.

Mr. Nelson has maintained through the years that the only thing he ever did to her was hold her wrists and slap her once, after she had pummelled him.

In 1996, when he was barely out of jail, she accused him of the brutal rape. He was denied bail because of the vicious details, and his record.

He tried to hang himself in custody. "I had just served 120 days for nothing," he recalls. "I was picturing the worst, and I thought my solution would be easier." He made a rope out of his bedsheet. Then he waited for lights-out, and for the guard to pass, and for his cell mate to start snoring, and for the courage to step off the sink. His kicking woke his cell mate up.

Mr. Nelson is a chef by trade. He grew up in Stratford, Ont., and went to work in Ottawa. By the time he went to jail he had married someone else, and they had a baby son. He was not a violent man.

In Millhaven, they told him to take the sex-offender program. He refused. "They labelled me a denier. 'Just deal with this, Mr. Nelson,' they said. 'It will help the healing.' "

They hooked him up to a phallometer so that they could diagnose just what kind of deviant he was. They put a mercury-filled balloon around his penis, then made him listen to audiotapes of sexual and violent acts. He had practically no response.

Why didn't he just take the sex-offender program? "In my view, there was nothing to heal," he says. "I would have had to sit in a group of inmates and program facilitators and tell my story. Well, the story begins and ends with the same sentence. 'I never did this.' "

They put him into solitary for refusing to co-operate. He was let out for an hour a day, weather permitting. "You can look out the window but you can't see anything," he remembers. "You can put your ear to the door, but all you hear are screams and confusion." He spent 14 or 15 months in the hole.

Mr. Nelson never saw his kids in jail. He told his family not to visit him. "There was just no way I could let my family, my dad, my children see me as a guilty man," he says. One Christmas, when they let the inmates wear their own clothes and didn't make them wear their "Inmate" badges, he let his father visit for three hours.

Because of his violent record, the judge declared that he wasn't eligible for early parole. He got out in March of 1999 and tried to pick up the pieces of his life. He was not allowed to live in Ottawa. His new relationship had not survived, and his second fell apart so badly that she lost their son to children's aid. He doesn't blame her. He is certain it would not have happened if he'd been there. "I would have found it pretty difficult to judge her and condemn her for not having the strength, when I had to convince myself every day to put the next foot forward," he says.

Mr. Nelson believes that rape victims deserve a measure of protection. But he also thinks the justice system was stacked against him. "No aspect of the victim's past can be divulged," he says. "But if you're an accused man, every degree of your being is open to discussion." It's time, he says, for the pendulum to swing back a bit.

"There were moments I was full of rage," says Mr. Nelson. "But I didn't have the strength to do everything I did, and hate. Hate has no value."

mwente@globeandmail.ca

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.