Ottawa Citizen
Friday 24 August 2001

Wrongfully convicted

Jamie Nelson spent years in prison for a sex assault he did not commit

Jake Rupert
The Ottawa Citizen

Patrick Doyle, The Ottawa Citizen /
Cathy Fordham, 30, told police Mr. Nelson had viciously raped and beat her.

Yvonne Berg, The Ottawa Citizen /
Jamie Nelson emerges from the Ontario Court of Appeal in Toronto yesterday after his conviction for a sexual assault was overturned. Mr. Nelson spent 3 1/2 years in prison and said his day of justice 'feels good, but it doesn't give me back one of those days I spent in prison.'

TORONTO -- In the end, justice came quickly for Jamie Nelson.

Five-and-a-half years after being found guilty of a rape he did not commit and spending 3 1/2 years in prison, three Ontario Court of Appeal Justices took less than five minutes to overturn his conviction yesterday.

After reading documents submitted by his appeal lawyer and a lawyer for the Crown -- both of whom asked for an acquittal -- Justices John Laskin, Stephen Goudge and Janet Simmons said they didn't even need to hear submissions. It was clear Mr. Nelson deserved an acquittal.

"We've read the material, and discussed this," Judge Laskin said. "We're in agreement. We propose to set aside the convictions and register acquittals."

He then endorsed the appeal file. As the judge did so, Mr. Nelson sighed and silently shed tears while sitting perfectly straight in the front row of courtroom 10 of Osgoode Hall.

With the stroke of a pen, Mr. Nelson, 34, who is from Ottawa but now lives in Stratford, Ont., was given his life back.

He now joins the list of the justice system's embarrassments -- falling in company with David Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted of a Saskatchewan murder and served 23 years before a DNA test cleared him, as well as Donald Marshall and Guy Paul Morin.

Mr. Nelson is an innocent man wrongfully convicted, and he wants people to learn from his plight.

"What happened today is what I've been waiting for since the day I was arrested," he said. "I can't put into words what I feel right now. What do you say when nobody believes you, you go to prison, you get treated like a rapist, then all of a sudden, people believe you.

"I told the truth all along. Sometimes I thought I was going crazy. I am innocent of this, and I can't believe this happened, but I have to. I lived it. Justice went right off the rails in my case, and it didn't have to. Wrongful convictions happen for a reason. Maybe by looking at my case, people in the justice system will learn, and it won't happen to somebody else.

"This feels good, but it doesn't give me back one of those days I spent in prison."

A civil action he is planning against the Ottawa police, the attorney general's office, and Corrections Canada may ease the pain, he said, but this is not about money, this is about respect and clearing his name.

Mr. Nelson's case is a shining example of how things can go wrong when people are prepared to manipulate the justice system.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Nelson was involved in a bitter child-custody battle with his former girlfriend, Christine Thompson. Ms. Thompson was friends with Cathy Fordham, 30, who took an active role in the battle.

Twice, when Mr. Nelson won more access rights to his son in family court, Ms. Fordham accused him of crimes against her. First she said he assaulted her. After a trial, he was convicted and sentenced to 120 days in jail.

After he was released in 1995, he won access to his son on weekends and one night a week. But every time over five weeks that he showed up to collect his son, Ms. Thompson said the child wasn't there. The last time, Mr. Nelson told Ms. Thompson they were going back to court. When he did this, she produced the child.

That Sunday when he pulled into his driveway with his son in tow, he was arrested at gunpoint by police. It was April 30, 1996. The day before, Ms. Fordham told police Mr. Nelson had viciously raped and beat her two months previously in her Vanier apartment.

She said she waited so long because she was afraid of Mr. Nelson.

The truth is, Mr. Nelson did no such thing. He was at home on the night in question. But the allegations were so brutal he was deemed a threat to society and denied bail.

His trial took place over seven days. Assistant Crown attorney Mark Moors prosecuted. Ken Hall defended Mr. Nelson. Ontario Court Justice Hugh Fraser presided without a jury.

Ms. Fordham was the Crown's main witness. She took the stand and gave details of the rape. She cried often. Mr. Nelson took the stand and denied the allegations. Several others were called to establish an alibi for him.

In the end, Judge Fraser found Ms. Fordham was telling the truth, Mr. Nelson and the other defence witnesses were lying and convicted him of sexual assault, assault, forcible confinement and uttering death threats.

On Nov. 14, 1996, after six months in jail awaiting his fate, the judge sentenced Mr. Nelson to 3 1/2 years in prison. He served every day until his statutory release date. His refusal to participate in sexual deviancy counselling landed him in solitary confinement for a total of 15 months.

While he was trying to stay alive in prison, Ms. Fordham set her self up as a leader of a group home for men caught in the court system. A later police investigation, the results of which were part of Mr. Nelson's appeal, showed the home was a snake-pit of drugs, alcohol, and sex.

Here, she refined her skill at using the justice system as her weapon of choice. She reported breaches of court orders when there were no breaches. This landed several men in jail.

In January 1998, Andre Emile Masson, 26, got the same treatment as Mr. Nelson -- a rape allegation with almost the same details. This led to his arrest.

In August 1998, Ms. Fordham accused Allan Kamen and Phillippe Francois of brutally assaulting her while she was praying at a grotto in Vanier. Ottawa police Sgt. Paul Turner investigated, but after the men produced solid alibis, and Ms. Fordham refused a polygraph, she was charged with public mischief for making a false complaint.

This touched off the police investigation that exposed Ms. Fordham as a calculating liar willing to abuse the courts. She was found guilty of public mischief last summer after a trial in which she also accused Mr. Kamen of sexually assaulting her while Mr. Francois watched.

Cathy Fordham's credibility was shot. The charges against Mr. Masson were dropped. Others proceedings were discontinued. However, Mr. Nelson was still in prison. He was paroled in March 1999 and successfully completed this in early 2000.

During this time, Ms. Fordham was charged with making a false police complaint again and threatening to kill a former boyfriend. These charges are still before the courts.

In his appeal, lawyer Todd Ducharme relied heavily on new evidence of Ms. Fordham's character, and how Judge Fraser, who noted Ms. Fordham's testimony at trial wasn't "prefect," misjudged her credibility.

Mr. Hall at trial, the appeal said, raised many issues that should have raised a reasonable doubt Mr. Nelson was guilty.

So compelling was yesterday's appeal, Scott Hutchison, a seasoned Crown attorney, did something he'd never done before -- asked for an acquittal. Afterwards, he shook Mr. Nelson's hand. "The right thing happened today," he said.

Mr. Ducharme called yesterday one of the most rewarding days of his career. "It is a cautionary tale," he said. "People make false allegations, and they make false allegations about serious crimes like sexual assault. I hope it makes people remember why people accused of crimes are presumed innocent."

Yesterday, after being informed Mr. Nelson was acquitted, Ms. Fordham held to her story. "I had no idea this was even going on," she said. "If I had known about this, I would have done something to try and fight it. I would never accuse anybody of anything they didn't do."

Copyright 2001 Ottawa Citizen Group Inc.