WINNIPEG — Robert Sanderson will get a chance to clear his name after spending more than two decades behind bars on a murder conviction the federal justice minister says was a likely miscarriage of justice.
On Monday, Justice Minister David Lametti referred Sanderson's 1997 conviction in the deaths of three men to the Manitoba Court of Appeal for a new hearing. It is the latest in a series of murder convictions in Manitoba to be called into question.
"I am satisfied that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a miscarriage of justice likely occurred and that a new appeal from conviction is warranted," Lametti said in a news release.
Innocence Canada, the group that took up Sanderson's case, was pleased.
"He hasn't (cleared his name) yet but this is a big step in that direction," said lawyer James Lockyer.
"From the day of his arrest, he protested his innocence."
Sanderson and two others were found guilty of first-degree murder in the brutal 1996 slaying of three men in what police at the time said was a gang war over control of the sex trade in Winnipeg.
The victims, Jason Gross, Thomas Krowetz and Stefan Zurstegge, had been tortured and stabbed. Two were also shot.
Sanderson was convicted the following year and sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 25 years. The Manitoba Court of Appeal dismissed his appeal in 1999, and he was later denied leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Blood from all three victims was found in Sanderson’s car, and Sanderson told police he had let someone borrow his car but would not name them.
Part of the evidence against Sanderson was a hair found on one of the victims, which an expert Crown witness said belonged to Sanderson based on microscopic analysis. That hair was eventually determined, through DNA testing in 2004, to have come from someone else.
Similar hair analysis was used to convict two other Manitoba men of separate murders in the 1990s — James Driskell and Kyle Unger. Their convictions were later overturned largely due to DNA testing.
The Manitoba government reviewed Sanderson's case in 2005 after microscopic hair analysis had been shown to be flawed. The government concluded there was still a strong circumstantial case against Sanderson that included witness testimony.
No date has been set for Sanderson's Court of Appeal hearing. He was released on parole in 2020.
"He's doing very well. He's living in British Columbia and doing his art and his sculptures and his woodworking and making a living at it," Lockyer said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Feb. 13, 2023.
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press