Thomas Sophonow stands alone among the ranks of the wrongly convicted in Canada for having been tried three times for the same crime, before finally being exonerated.
Barbara Stoppel Murder
The investigation and prosecution of the murder that Sophonow was alleged to have committed exposed problems seen time and again in miscarriages of justice: lazy police work and an unswerving determination by authorities to obtain a conviction, even if it meant bending the rules.
Sophonow, a 29-year-old machine operator, was charged in the murder of 16-year-old Barbara Stoppel, a counter server at Ideal Donut Shop in St. Boniface, Manitoba. She was strangled in the women’s washroom of the store on 23 December 1981. Found close to death, she lingered for six days on life support before succumbing to her injuries.
Several eyewitnesses promptly came forward after the high-profile crime, claiming to have seen a lone man in a cowboy hat hanging around the donut store, later locking the store door from the inside shortly before the murder.
Witnesses ultimately identified Sophonow based on photo lineups that, many years later, would be revealed as having been badly flawed and conducted in a biased fashion.
One eyewitness who would loom particularly large in the prosecution, John Doerksen, told police that he had noticed a man on a bridge that night throwing something into a river. The object was recovered and turned out to be a length of twine used to strangle Stoppel.
Pathology lab experts determined that the twine had originated with one of two possible manufacturers: one in Portage la Prairie, near Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the other in Washington state, just outside Vancouver, British Columbia. The Washington company identified the rope as having come from its factory. It would become prime evidence against Sophonow, who lived in Vancouver but had been visiting Winnipeg at the time of the murder.
Interrogation and Confession
In conditions that would be illegal under today’s laws, Sophonow was aggressively interrogated by police. He was not informed of his right to counsel and was strip-searched. In another effort to force a confession from Sophonow, police informed him that his fingerprints had been found in the donut store and that five witnesses had already identified him.
Sophonow eventually became persuaded that he had killed Stoppel and had blacked out afterward, remembering little of the crime. He confessed this to police. However, only 15 minutes of transcribed notes were produced from his interrogation and confession.
On 12 March 1982, police announced they had found and arrested the man who had become known as the “Cowboy Killer.”
Additional evidence against Sophonow turned up while he was in prison awaiting his trial. Three jailhouse informants told police they had heard him confess to the murder.
Sophonow’s defence was based largely on an alibi. He claimed that he had arrived from Vancouver late on the night of 22–23 December in hopes of visiting his two-year-old daughter — who was in the custody of his ex-wife. Denied permission to see her, Sophonow said he had gone to a Canadian Tire to get his car brakes fixed. While waiting for the work to be completed, he had purchased some Christmas stockings and toys to be distributed to children at a nearby hospital.
His first trial ended on 6 November 1982 when the jury concluded that it could not reach a unanimous verdict.
Sophonow’s second trial concluded on 17 March 1983 with a conviction. The Manitoba Court of Appeal later overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial because the theory of the defence had not been properly given to the jury by the trial judge. This decision was affirmed about nine months later by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Sophonow’s third trial began on 4 February 1985. Again, he was convicted of second-degree murder. The Manitoba Court of Appeal not only reversed the conviction based, again, on errors made by the trial judge, but it ruled that Sophonow could not be tried a fourth time. He was formally acquitted on 12 December 1985. The Supreme Court of Canada ultimately refused to hear a Crown appeal of the decision, ending the prosecution once and for all.
As controversy grew about whether police had bungled the investigation, three reviews of the case were conducted, including an internal Winnipeg Police inquiry by Constable John Burchill. The results of the reviews were not made public. However, Winnipeg Police Chief Jack Ewatski conceded in 2000 that the investigation had been botched.
Having spent a total of four years behind bars, and having lived most of his adult life under the shadow of an ongoing murder prosecution, Sophonow was exonerated and received a full apology from the Manitoba government.
The provincial government appointed Peter Cory, a former Supreme Court of Canada judge, to preside over a commission of inquiry into the miscarriage of justice. Cory fought several battles with authorities to obtain evidence he deemed important, including the results of the Burchill report.
Sophonow participated in the inquiry but revealed himself as a deeply troubled man. On several occasions, he emitted angry outbursts at his own lawyers or the legal system as a whole. He fired several of his counsel and, at one point, Sophonow advised lawyers not to take instructions from him because he would be “a hindrance.”
Testifying at the inquiry, Sophonow spoke candidly about how being imprisoned and ostracized by his community had left him irremediably broken. Often near tears, he described being kept in segregation for periods of his incarceration at one of the most brutal penitentiaries in the country. Sophonow said he suffered from a litany of stress-related medical problems. He also recounted that his house was firebombed, and that his daughter once happened to see some old television news footage of the crime and asked him: “Daddy, are you a murderer?”
In his 2001 report, Justice Cory described the Sophonow case as a flagrant instance of tunnel vision where other viable suspects were ignored, as the police relentlessly built a case around the man they had become convinced was the murderer. As an illustration of this, he cited the suppression of evidence from a BC Hydro employee who had concluded that the twine used to strangle Stoppel was produced by the Manitoba company, rather than the factory located in Washington. Cory observed that, had police wanted to test the twine properly at the outset of the case, it would have cost just $100 to do so.
Cory was sharply critical of “startlingly unfair” police procedures, which included the use of a hypnotist to enhance Mr. Doerksen’s memory, and an “unconscionable” strip search of Sophonow as part of his interrogation. He said police photo lineup procedures were conducted in such a way as to produce the results officers were seeking. Police actively prodded eyewitnesses toward reaching the conclusions they hoped for, or arranged photos in such a way that he was likely to be singled out, Cory said.
Finally, his report condemned the use of jailhouse informants, including one who had 26 fraud charges later dropped in recognition of his testimony against Sophonow.
“The psychological scarring that (Sophonow) has suffered is just as grave and just as permanent as would be the loss of a limb,” Cory concluded. He recommended that Sophonow receive $2.6 million in compensation payments; half of that paid by the City of Winnipeg, 40 per cent by the province; and the remainder from the federal government.
The Stoppel murder case may never be solved, if only because a leading suspect in the re-investigation, Terry Arnold, has died.
Sophonow lives in New Westminster, BC, with his second wife and their three children. Diagnosed as suffering from a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome that may never be alleviated, Sophonow decided against returning to full-time employment and has lived largely off his compensation.