Gerald Bernard Klassen spent more than a quarter of a century in prison for the first-degree murder of 22-year-old Julie McLeod in 1993 – a crime he has always maintained he did not commit.
This week, federal Justice Minister David Lametti concluded that the B.C. man’s 1995 conviction was likely a miscarriage of justice, order a new trial after a years-long effort by the Innocence Project at the University of British Columbia.
Project director Tamara Levy says she and the two attorneys who handled the case contacted Klassen by phone to tell him the news.
“He was very happy, as you can imagine,” Levy told CBC.
“But he was a long time coming and – of course – better late than never, but he spent 26 years in prison for a crime that never happened. So, of course, he wants this result to have was achieved from the outset.”
“He offered to take her home”
The result is Project Innocence’s second major victory.
In 2020, Lametti ordered a new trial for another of the program’s subjects – a father who was convicted of murdering his two sons in 1983.
The accused in this case — Tomas Yebes — was acquitted after a brief retrial in which the Crown presented no evidence.
A spokesperson for the BC Prosecution Service said Klassen’s case is being reviewed to determine next steps. But Levy said she expects the case will likely follow a similar path.
According to court documents, McLeod’s partially clothed body was found in December 1993 at the base of a boat launch on the south shore of Nicola Lake near Merritt, British Columbia.
Klassen said he had sex with Mcleod and admitted the pair had an argument that ended with him pushing her away and Mcleod falling and hitting his head on the boat ramp.
“He denies that there was anything other than consensual sexual contact and denies that Ms. McLeod was partially clothed when he left the scene,” said British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Catherine Wedge. said in 2020 when Klassen requested bail pending the outcome of his appeal to Lametti.
“Mr. Klassen says that when he left the boat launch, Ms. McLeod was alive and cursing at him. He offered to drive her home, but she refused.”
Despite Klassen’s protests, a jury found him guilty of causing her death by sexual assault. The British Columbia Court of Appeal denied his appeal and his case was dismissed for a hearing in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Wedge released Klassen after reviewing new opinions from defense and Crown experts who questioned the opinion of a pathologist at trial who insisted on McLeod’s injuries from multiple blows and that his death was due to assault, hypothermia and acute intoxication.
The pathologist has since ‘softened’ his view on the cause of the young woman’s death and expert reports have revealed that ‘the head trauma could have been caused by an accidental fall or intentional force, but that the forensic science could not determine which”.
‘A Classic Catch 22’
A charge of first degree murder comes with the possibility of parole after 25 years. But like most prisoners who maintain their innocence behind bars, Klassen was denied full parole.
“He was a docile and hardworking inmate,” Wedge said.
“Yet he was repeatedly denied transfer to a minimum-security facility; even after serving the mandatory 25 years for first-degree murder, he was denied full parole because he always asserted his innocence. This is, in my opinion, a classic Catch 22.”
Levy said eight students worked on the case alongside members of the BC bar who hired Klassen for free. She says it takes between eight and 12 years for a wrongful conviction case to work its way through the system.
Last year, a former Ontario Court of Appeal judge and a former Quebec Court judge submitted a report to Lametti recommending the creation of a new independent commission to examine miscarriages of justice.
“We hope this commission will come to fruition and take on more of this work to ensure it gets done faster than in the past,” Levy said.
“It’s certainly not a very efficient process at the moment and we would like to see that change.”