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Kept apart by a miscarriage of justice, torn apart by death, brothers finally together

Twin brothers, separated for three decades by a wrongful conviction that sent one to jail, have now been eternally reunited. Romeo Phillion, 76, died on Monday in Mississauga.
Citizen file photo

Twin brothers, separated for three decades by a wrongful conviction that sent one to jail, have now been eternally reunited. Romeo Phillion, 76, died on Monday in Mississauga.

Prince George's Don Phillion, his brother, passed away in 2006 at the University Hospital of Northern B.C. after a long battle with emphysema.

He got to see his brother once in his final days of life, but it took special permission from the Ontario Ministry of Justice to do so, since Phillion was still technically on parole for the Ottawa murder of Leopold Roy. Only the humanitarian trip to Don's hospice bed melted the rule forbidding Phillion from leaving Ontario.

Phillion had, by then, been released from prison with the government's acknowledgment that his prosecution was an unjust one with promises of a pardon hearing soon - but soon kept getting delayed. Phillion's conviction was officially quashed, a new trial was ordered, but the provincial government stayed the charge knowing it could not obtain a conviction after all those years.

That left Phillion in a legal limbo: freed, but only partially; vindicated but not pardoned.

Since he was set free from prison on July 21, 2003 he was intent on moving to Prince George to be with Don. But he remained imprisoned by red tape. He said to The Citizen during that push to be reunited full-time with Don that he thought the Ontario government was deliberately stalling so that he would die and they could avoid a lawsuit for the 31 wrongful years he spent in prison. This still stands as the record for the length of time served by anyone in Canada for whom a conviction was later overturned.

Phillion still lived his life with a sense of gratitude, though, despite the lifetime of wrongful imprisonment. He admitted it could have been worse, since the conviction he received would have been a capital offense had it happened only a few years earlier.

"If there was a death penalty, I would be dead by now," he said. "It was a capital offense. Hanging was in place. Trudeau was involved and (ended capital punishment). The last guy hanged was in '62 and that was the last of it."

Roy was murdered in 1967, and Phillion prosecuted for it five years later. It remains an unsolved incident.

The case against Phillion is now studied in law schools and is the topic of dubious legal legend. The main complicating factor was Phillion, in a fit of stupid bravado and quite probably mental health factors, confessed to Roy's murder.

He recanted it almost immediately, and various bits of evidence were presented to prove he wasn't actually the one, but as he described it to The Citizen, the Ottawa police department disliked the ne'er-do-well Phillion and seized their chance to be rid of someone they considered a petty low-life.

As history now shows, at trial the eyewitness testimony was weak, there was admitted destruction of key physical evidence, and only much later did it emerge that the prosecution withheld key information that would have meant immediate dismissal of the case. This information was eventually - years into his prison term - leaked to Phillion's defense team by someone in the justice system with a bothered conscience.

Once that paperwork mysteriously appeared, advocates lined up to fight for Phillion, including luminaries like Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter and David Milgaard, both famously exonerated after their own long prison sentences.

Osgoode Hall Law School at York University also took Phillion's case on as part of their Innocence Project, a program unique in Canada for standing up for those believed wrongfully convicted.

All the pressure worked, to a point.

"Oh my God. I couldn't believe it. You'd have to be in my shoes to get that feeling. Everything changed. It was so beautiful. I was so happy," said Romeo about walking out of prison.

He got out of jail but couldn't get over that Ontario border, even though a verified support team was in place in Prince George to take him in.

"I'd like to see my brother. That is my dream, my number one priority, to be with him now," said Phillion shortly after his release. "I miss him so much, and I suppose he misses me, too. We are twins, we are like one, and he won't be with us too long and I want to be by his side. Maybe if I were there for him to see me he would get better. Miracles happen. I miss him so much, and that could help make us both stronger."

Phillion also said "I know he's going through hell (with grave health issues). I should be allowed to see him, geez, I'm his next of kin and I don't want him to pass away before I get there. And when one of us does die, we've already talked about this, we will be cremated and be by the other one's side always."

A 10-day pass was granted to be with terminally ill Don. Phillion arrived on Feb. 7, 2006 and went straight to Don's bed. They spent the next 10 days together, but that was to be their only meeting as Don succumbed to the disease shortly afterwards.

Phillion focused on living in Ontario with family there, after Don was gone. He got tired of waiting for an official pardon and prepared a lawsuit reported for about $14 million. The Ontario government attempted to block the legal action but earlier this year the Supreme Court of Canada granted permission for Phillion to sue for the loss of those 31 years.

That trial had not yet begun, but Phillion's surviving family vow to continue the fight.

In his final years, Phillion also suffered fatally from emphysema and passed away in almost an identical state as his brother.

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