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COWANSVILLE, QUE. - It was a blustery winter night in the Eastern Townships. Marie-Claire Cusson dropped into the neighbourhood variety store around 10 p.m. on Dec. 17, 1991, as she always did. She found it odd that the place seemed empty. Walking down one aisle, then another, she spotted a couple of drops of blood on the floor. She glimpsed a pair of feet, then the face of shopkeeper Remy Lariviere. He looked calm, his eyes still half-open. Behind him was the cash register, its till open and empty. It was to be the start of a nightmare that still hasn't ended for Chris Bates, then 20, who ran a local scrapyard. He was charged with murder. Protesting his innocence, he turned down a deal to plead guilty to manslaughter for a six- to eight-year sentence.
Instead he fought - and lost - and got a life sentence. LIST IS GROWING This week, Bates learned that his almost seven-year struggle to prove his innocence is paying off. Three Quebec Supreme Court judges took just 39 minutes to decide he should have a fresh trial. Bates argues his name should be in that growing list of Canadians wrongly convicted; a list that includes Donald Marshall, David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin. Like them, he argues he is a victim of a blundering police investigation and a miscarriage of justice. No forensic evidence was presented at his trial six years ago linking him to the shotgun death of Lariviere. No fingerprints, gunpowder residue, footprints or eye witnesses tied Bates to the murder scene. What the crown did have against Bates was the testimony of a 17-year-old ex-girlfriend, Kim Demers, who said Bates left a party nearby to go to the store. Demers gave a half-dozen separate and often conflicting accounts of the night. For the past four years, Bates has spent hundreds of hours in almost daily telephone contact with members of the Toronto-based Association for the Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. Bates, who expects to get bail next week, had no parole date in sight when the Quebec court issued its decision this week.
The court based its decision on new evidence in the case, provided by the association, which pointed to a more likely suspect. Bates' telephone contacts soon extended to private investigators Bill Joynt and Sean Gladney of The Investigators Group in Toronto, who were hired on by the association. They spent hundreds of hours on the telephone line between Drummondville and Toronto, as Joynt and Gladney dug for the fresh evidence that convinced the judges this week to grant a new trial. While he knows them by telephone, he has never met the team who fought for his release. Funds were tight, so when investigators went to Quebec, they used their time and money probing his case, not socializing at prison. "I told him, 'You can either look at my ugly face or have me out looking for evidence,' " Gladney says. "I plan on going to see them as soon as I get out," Bates said in an interview from prison in Drummondville. "I made a promise to them that when I get out, I'll buy . . . a meal . . ." Joynt and Gladney were drawn into the case, and kept making trips to Quebec even after the association's funds dried up.
They estimate it cost them some $60,000 in time and expenses over the past four years. At one point, Gladney was chased out of Cowansville by bikers with baseball bats. The investigators were able to obtain statements from witnesses who saw two men in a brown Grand Prix outside the store at the time of the murder. Neither of the men matched the description of Bates, according to a statement supplied to the court from Joynt and Gladney. A major coup for the investigators was obtaining a statement from Josee Laflame, a woman who lives across the street from the murder site. Her statement was included in material filed in court. She said she saw the brown car parked outside the store that night, and was certain Chris Bates was not inside. Two weeks later, the men she saw in the car approached her, and she had the queasy feeling they were checking to see if she recognized them. The investigators also spoke with Vernon Wilson, who testified at a later, related trial that he was in the brown car that night. Wilson testified the brown car's driver took something out of the trunk, then went into the store.
There was a loud bang, and when the driver returned, he said "he had no choice, he had to do it," Wilson testified at another trial, after Bates' trial, of a man accused in the shooting. That trial dealt only with the robbery, not the shooting. 'IT'S NEVER OVER' Joynt and Gladney were also able to pick holes in the testimony of a man who implicated Bates to police, then recanted. The man said that he was pressured by police to implicate Bates. The investigators were constantly spurred on by Bates' mother Janet. She says she felt horribly alone until she made telephone contact with the association. "You keep reaching out, reaching out, reaching out .When one person listens to you, it's like they've given you your life . . ." Bates' father, Doug, a factory worker, said the family remortgaged their small home and spent all of their limited savings on a string of lawyers before they connected with the Association for the Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. "I know he's no angel but he's no killer either," Doug Bates says. "When somebody dies in the family, it hurts for a year, and then it's over. But this here, it's never over . . . To work all day, and to come home to that, it's not funny. I worked for the past 32 years and put it all into that." Chris Bates says he turned to the association because he didn't feel he could get a fair deal in Quebec. He first learned of the association four years ago, when he was watching TV in the maximum-security Donnaconna Penitentiary. Bates asked his mother to give it a call, and when she did, she spoke with Win Wahrer, who founded the support group that successfully fought the wrongful murder conviction of Guy Paul Morin of Queensville.
It's Wahrer's job to screen calls for the association, and the more she heard from Janet Bates, the more troubled she became about the case. Wahrer studied trial transcripts and kept accepting Bates' collect long-distance telephone calls. She became convinced that he was innocent. Bates was soon also talking on the telephone to Toronto area lawyer Lon Rose and former boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, whose wrongful murder conviction and 20 years imprisonment is the topic of an upcoming movie. Carter says he knows how Bates felt. "In prison, there's no such thing as time," Carter says. "Time does not exist. It's moment by moment by moment by moment." With files from Harold Levyby Peter Edwards and Harold LevyToronto Star, December 30, 1999