Toronto Sun

Friday, August 24, 2001

An innocent man

He spent three years behind bars for sex assault he did not commit. Yesterday he was freed

By SAM PAZZANO, COURTS BUREAU
Toronto Sun

Ontario's highest court acquitted a Stratford chef of sexual assault and forcible confinement charges after he spent almost three years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

"It was established beyond any question that Jamie Nelson is an innocent man who was wrongfully convicted," his lawyer Todd Ducharme said outside the Court of Appeal, moments after the decision.

Mr. Justice John Laskin struck the conviction, saying the Crown conceded it has no reasonable prospect of conviction against the former Ottawa resident because of fresh evidence.

"I felt my heart stop when Justice Laskin spoke. I was astonished at how fast it happened -- it was over finally," Nelson, 34, said in an interview. "She's the complainant from hell. I told her, when I was convicted, that she always said she wanted to be an actress, on a soap opera and I said, 'Congratulations.'"

IN SEGREGATION

Nelson was sentenced to 31/2 years in November 1996, and spent half that time in segregation because he maintained his innocence.

"It's the Kafka-esque nightmare -- what could be worse -- being in prison, knowing you are an innocent person and crying out repeatedly, 'I didn't do it,' but having no one listen to you.

"We've had Milgaard, we've had Morin and we've had someone else here today. The justice system is a human system and it's not perfect," Ducharme said yesterday.

Ducharme said Nelson "was wrongfully convicted because of a complainant who was sophisticated and who lied. This is a cautionary tale for anyone who would ever suggest that people who make allegations of sexual assault must be telling the truth because why would they go through the process?

"This is the first step in ending what was a three-year nightmare for him," Ducharme said. "He will be commencing civil action and it wouldn't be appropriate for us to discuss it at this time. He lost three years of his life."

Nelson, who tried to hang himself in prison, lost more than his freedom because of the false allegations levelled by former Ottawa social worker Cathie Fordham. He also lost his two sons, Riley, now 5, and Dustin, now 8, -- children he hasn't seen since he was arrested April 29, 1996.

Fordham, in an interview with CFTO, said she stood by her testimony.

Nelson's then-common-law wife, Marie Verdon, abandoned their son, Riley, in early '97. Two months after being in Millhaven prison, Nelson learned his son was in the care of the Children's Aid Society. Riley was adopted and now Dustin is with his mother, Christine Thomson, in Ottawa.

OTTAWA WEEKEND

"And if I can bring him home in my suitcase, I will," joked Nelson, who is in Ottawa this weekend.

Nelson, 34, was accused of sexually assaulting Fordham -- the best friend of ex-commonlaw spouse Thomson.

Nelson and Thomson were embroiled in a custody dispute over their son Dustin in 1996. After he was denied access to his infant on three consecutive weekends in April of that year, Nelson tried to get a court to order an access visit.

But the night before that family court appearance, Fordham pressed charges against him -- two months after the alleged attack -- and Nelson was jailed April 29.

"There's no doubt these events were inextricably linked and my family lawyer tried to convey that to Judge Fraser.

'HAPPY BOY'

"I can only hope Riley is a happy little boy right now, that he is loved and within a family that really cares about him. I don't know how I would be able to walk up to that family and take him again," said Nelson, who paused for several seconds before considering his lost son.

"I want him, but I'm going to take some time. I definitely want to inquire to see how he is. I don't want to just walk away from my son. I went to prison for my other son. I'm not going to just discard him."

Nelson declined the chance to have an inmates' appeal in November 1998 because he wanted to win, wanted it done properly and fortunately he won," Ducharme said.

Nelson, now lives in Stratford with Sheila Weitzel, "a wonderful woman" whom he has had a relationship almost since the day he was freed from prison on March 15, 1999.

His father, Jim, a computer analyst with the military, always believed him from the very beginning.

"He never wavered, was often the voice on the other end of the phone that kept me going, that the truth will come out," said Nelson, his voice cracking with emotion.

Fordham was convicted of public mischief relating to a false allegation against another man, which started as an assault claim and changed to allege a sexual assault involving fellatio.

'ANOTHER CHARGE'

"It's our hope the Crown in Ottawa will lay another charge of public mischief in relation to this case," Ducharme said.

Fordham will also appear Monday at a sentencing hearing -- for uttering death threats against her ex-boyfriend -- in front of Ottawa Justice Hugh Fraser, the same judge who believed her version and sentenced Nelson.

"The irony that it's Justice Fraser is almost comical. I wonder if he'll remember my face or if he'll say anything to me," said Nelson, who will attend court Monday.

Ottawa prosecutor Julie Scott, who is handling Fordham's case, said: "There have been no discussions about perjury charges. Obviously it's something to consider, but we have to have discussions about that."

Scott said she's unsure what would happen in court Monday. "We were hopeful that there would be some final resolution to this matter, but I'm not sure that's going to happen now."

Before the allegations, Nelson was a successful partner in a catering and pastry firm and was brimming with pride over his new son. He'd then moved to his new home outside of Ottawa.

"I had a six-month-old son sitting on my lap. Life couldn't have been any better," Nelson said in an interview.

Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership.