BC CATHOLIC PHOTO | LAUREEN MCMAHON
Ivan Henry says his daughters Tanya (left) and Kari are helping him survive after nearly 28 years in jail.
VANCOUVER — Ivan Henry is a member of an exclusive club, but it's a club nobody wants to join: Canadians who have served time in prison for crimes they didn't commit.
Henry, who was arrested nearly 28 years ago, branded a dangerous offender and given an indefinite sentence without the possibility of parole, is breathing the air of freedom after a B.C. Court of Appeal panel acquitted him on three counts of rape, two counts of attempted rape and five counts of indecent assault committed in Vancouver between May 1981 and June 1982.
"It was a long, long road," said the 64-year-old, who was in his mid-30s when the prison doors slammed shut in 1983.
"I wouldn't be here today," Henry answered flatly, "if I wasn't Catholic."
His Catholic faith, he said, which he learned at his mother's knee, sustained him almost from the beginning of his incarceration and grew even stronger as the bleak years turned into decades.
Is Henry bitter about the miscarriage of justice?
"Nah, I don't have time for bitterness. I don't blame God. Today I've got two wonderful girls and grandchildren, and a great son-in-law. My family believed in me and stood by me.
"I've gone to Confession and been forgiven by God for my sins. I didn't commit the ones that led to 27 years in jail, but there have been other things that I need forgiveness for. It's important because I want to be right with God."
His decision to forgive, he said, is based on Christ's teaching to turn the other cheek to your enemies.
He laughed as he recalled a priest friend telling him he has nothing to fear in the future because "You've already done purgatory!"
Henry didn't see his youngest daughter for 12 years and was serving time when his wife died.
He admits he may have been naive when he chose to defend himself at trial in 1983, but he continues to believe that it was the right decision, although he had a prior attempted rape conviction.
"I didn't know the law at all but I knew they had nothing on me."
A couple of years ago, Henry finally caught a break when his case came to the attention of a new team of defence lawyers.
While he had continued to maintain his innocence and had even written an astonishing 55 court appeals from prison, Henry was fighting an uphill battle with little chance of success, his lawyer David Layton told The B.C. Catholic. In the end it wasn't the voluminous number of appeals that made the difference, said Layton, as much as new evidence that came to light.
"Around 2004-05 police were investigating a series of cold case sexual assaults and concluded the same individual had probably done them. They compared DNA from the cases and found it matched in three of the cases," said Layton.
"A crown counsel lawyer remembered Ivan's case and knew he had been in jail when some of these crimes had been committed. It raised the question of whether or not they got the right guy," said Layton.
A case review revealed that there had actually been nothing to link Henry to any of the crime scenes or the victims. However, while none of the women could identify him with certainty in the prisoner lineups, they all testified later in court that he was their attacker.
By the time he was released, Henry had the dubious distinction of being the longest-serving wrongfully-convicted prisoner in the history of Canada.
Henry began reading the Bible in prison. It's not surprising the story of Job became his favourite book.
Although tempted at one point to take his own life, his faith gave him the strength to go on, he said during an interview at a coffee shop near his daughter's home in North Vancouver.
After a long stretch in prison in Prince Albert, Sask., Henry was sent to B.C.'s Mountain Institution in 1994 when his daughters petitioned for the transfer. He completed Grade 12 and, when he wasn't working in the prison kitchen, prepared appeals following the strict guidelines required by the courts, spurred by the belief he would one day be reunited with his family.
Without the support of his daughters, Tanya and Kari, Henry says he probably wouldn't survive being out of prison after nearly three decades. He suffers from some post-traumatic stress.
"It's hard to walk down the street alone because I worry about who is walking behind me," he said.
Henry is "amazed" at how the world has changed since he was shut away - not necessarily for the better.
"There's sensory overload. I see violence on the streets and so much disrespect going on. I wish the churches could be open for people to pray whenever they need to. They're all locked up for fear of theft, but it would be nice to have a place in the church where people can pray."
Tanya says it's hard to fathom that her father is finally free.
"Dad always maintained his innocence. After we were old enough to read the trial transcript, we knew he was telling the truth," she said. "Call it gut instinct, but I just always believed."
Kari had just turned seven and Tanya was two years older when Henry disappeared from their lives. If he is distressed about anything, it is about how his children were left to fend for themselves after their mother died.
"It was hard," he said. "They only had each other. They went through tough times and people said hurtful things, you know, about me. They were only kids. They had a lot to deal with, and they never deserved any of it."
"We fended for ourselves from the time we were 15 and 17," said Tanya, who was baptized Catholic in 2004 after marrying a Catholic man from Mexico.
Today Henry is rebuilding his life and says he wants to make the most out of every day. "I say three rosaries a day. I want to do whatever God tells me, and he is telling me to pray," he said.
A big project on the horizon is writing a book that he hopes will shed light on the Canadian court system. "I hope that people will learn from my case how easily something like this can happen."
His lawyers are putting together a case for compensation for his years spent behind bars.