This interview was first published on On Purpose, a series profiling people who are making a difference.
There was nothing surprising to me in Serial or Making A Murderer. I think it’s very easy for people to think that wrongful convictions only happen in small towns in the US, but our files indicate otherwise. It happens in Canada, too.
Alexandra Ballantyne didn’t grow up thinking she’d be a defence lawyer — or study law for that matter. She did know, however, that she wanted to do work that would help others.
After studying psychology, she went on to help Victoria’s homeless population as an outreach worker, but soon grew frustrated by her inability to create overarching change within a system that desperately needed changing. That’s why she decided to enroll at UBC’s Allard School of Law. When she was selected for a 12-month volunteer stint with UBC’s Innocence Project, she finally found her calling: criminal law.
Founded in 2007, UBC’s Innocence Project is a Vancouver-based nonprofit helping wrongly convicted people to assert their innocence, and overturn their convictions.
For Alexandra, going through heaps of files and seeing the injustice that can happen to a wrongfully convicted person in cold print was a shock. Her work, she says, has instilled a “healthy cynicism” for Canada’s legal system in her, but has also fuelled her passion for being part of a project that is trying to right a wrong.
On finding purpose: I will always look at my time at the Innocence Project as a turning point in my life that put me on the path that I’m supposed to be on. That sounds so cliche, but that’s how it feels for me.
On student experiences: What draws students to the Innocence Project is the humanity of the cases. They understand that these are people who have lost everything in their lives and are hopeful that something can change in the future. It’s a chance to develop a relationship that you would probably not develop otherwise within the criminal law. I mean, our clients send us Christmas cards.
On working with the Innocence Project: When I was a student case worker, I worked on a major homicide file. I spent most of my year going through 4,000 pages of Crown disclosure, trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.
It’s a very unique opportunity for students to go so in-depth with an investigation and see all the files from the time of the police investigation to the appeal level. I would say most law students don't get the chance to do that kind of hands-on work.
On commitment: Within the program, 5 hours a week are mandatory, but most student case workers put in more than 20 hours. The fact that they put in that much extra time, while they already could easily have an 80-hour week with readings and assignments, is a huge testament to the program. It really speaks to the power of this type of work.
The more you get into a file and you see the injustice on paper, the more you want to know.
On Making A Murderer: There was nothing surprising to me in Serial or Making A Murderer. I think it’s very easy for people to think that wrongful convictions only happen in small towns in the US, but our files indicate otherwise. It happens in Canada, too.
On Ivan Henry: Ivan Henry would be a great case for a show like Making A Murderer to look at and uncover what went wrong. It’s a case that happened right here in Vancouver.
On cynicism: The Innocence Project gave me a healthy cynicism and stripped away some of the naivety I had about police investigations and the Canadian legal system. At the same time, every system has flaws and aspects that are broken and it’s really amazing to be part of a project that is trying to right a wrong.
On false confessions: The root causes for false confessions are police interrogation techniques and a lack of access to council, which is a big issue in BC. I had never really thought about false confessions as a leading cause for wrongful convictions before I came to the Innocence Project; 25% of exonerations happen because of false confessions.
On improper forensics: I’ve learned that even if a police officer or scientist said it’s so, maybe it’s not. Bite mark comparison, for example, has recently been discredited, and that was used in a few wrongful conviction cases that led to exonerations in Canada.
On expert witnesses: I was shocked that experts often don’t have their backgrounds and qualifications questioned in court. Often, what experts say is gospel and the courts place a high reliability on it.
On underfunding: There are many issues within our legal system, but I think it all points back to a lack of funding across the board.
Resources and capacity issues can really slow everything down, which is really frustrating for us, but more importantly for our clients who are waiting every day in jail, waiting to hear some news.
On bias: We never really examine our own bias or think about the impact wrongful convictions have on marginalized populations.
On the consequences of wrongful convictions: The saddest part of wrongful convictions is that even once you’ve been exonerated, the stigma of that conviction stays with you your entire life. How do you give somebody back their life?
On tough choices: Which client gets a DNA test this year? Those are the choices we make. They are really tough choices, and it’s horrible that it comes down to money — but it does.
There have been three or four files that we had to turn down this year and had to put into a pending folder, just because there’s a lack of capacity and a lack of resources. How does it feel to go to someone who has been in jail for 20 years and say ‘sorry, we can’t help you’? That’s the thing I lose sleep over. It’s a terrible feeling.