The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) is calling on the federal government to intervene and release two Saskatchewan sisters who have served almost three decades in prison for a murder they say they didn’t commit.
Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance were sentenced to life on second-degree murder charges in 1994 for the death of Anthony Joseph Dolff from Kamsack. A young offender, who was 15 at the time, was also convicted.
“Despite a lack of physical evidence, and the testimony of (the young offender) stating he was responsible for the murder in 1993, Odelia and Narrisa have remained in prison,” said CAP National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin during a Zoom media conference May 18.
“While (the young offender) received a four-year sentence for second-degree murder, the two women were handed life-sentences.”
One sister in a healing lodge, the other in hiding
Odelia and Nerissa haven’t physically seen each other for 18 years – since their father’s funeral.
Odelia is at a healing lodge in Western Canada.
“I wake up in the morning and say “why, why am I still here?’” said Odelia on May 18.
“My sister and I should not have received a life sentence for a crime we didn't commit,” said Odelia. “We were treated unfairly from the beginning as young Indigenous women living in Saskatchewan. Someone else has confessed to this horrific murder and still the justice system fails us. My three girls miss their mother and I should be home with them. I feel exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally, and now is the time for my release after almost 30 years.”
Nerissa has been wanted on a Canada-wide warrant for the last three years for parole violations. Following the media conference she spoke to the Battlefords News-Optimist on the phone from an undisclosed location.
“I’m doing awesome,” she said about her freedom. “I’m living the dream I never had.”
After spending almost three decades behind bars, life on the outside has challenges.
“There are still some things I don’t know.”
She isn’t bitter even though she has lost decades of her life incarcerated for a murder she says she didn’t commit.
“I don’t blame nobody you know. I learned to forgive.”
Nerissa hopes she and Odelia will be exonerated and she said she isn’t concerned about the government financially compensating her.
“The thing about compensation, nothing could ever bring back the things I lost. No money can bring back what I lost.”
Likewise, Odelia says the justice system has taken so much from her.
“It took 28 years of my life,” said Odelia. “I have lost many relatives and I couldn’t go to their funerals. It took me away from my children. I have not been a parent physically. I have been a phone mother all these years.
“What the system took away from me is my spirit and to be free. I always ask myself ‘why?’
“It took a lot of my ability to heal and I’m so institutionalized,” she added. “I worry a lot. I wake up every morning hurting that I can’t be with my family. I can’t do the stuff I need to do for myself and for my children.”
David Milgaard and Senator Kim Pate support the sisters
The Innocence Project has taken up the sisters’ cause. They helped David Milgaard who was wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of nurse Gail Miller in Saskatoon in 1969. He spent 23 years in prison before being freed.
Milgaard believes in Odelia and Nerissa’s innocence and called the situation a terrible injustice.
“We know they had absolutely nothing to do with this crime. These two women aren’t responsible for doing anything wrong. The person responsible confessed to it and we want these women to heal and start their life and be free. This is a situation that has to be resolved quickly.”
Senator Kim Pate said she is stunned the sisters haven’t been exonerated.
“Someone else confessed. Why there hasn’t been a review of their case is beyond me,” said Senator Pate during the Zoom conference May 18. “There needs to be an immediate review of the convictions of Nerissa and Odelia.”
Canada’s Department of Justice said the federal government is committed to a fair and impartial criminal justice system that respects the needs of victims while guarding against potential miscarriages of justice.
The Criminal Conviction Review Group (CCRG), within the Department of Justice, handles the criminal conviction review process. Individuals who have exhausted their rights of appeal can apply to have their convictions reviewed.
“For privacy reasons, we cannot comment on particular applications,” said spokesperson Melissa Gruber in an email statement May 18.
Gruber said should an application be made, the CCRG conducts a review on the Minister of Justice’s behalf and advises the Minister on the appropriate remedy, if any. The Minister will then review relevant material and decide, on the basis of the facts and the law, whether a review application should be dismissed or allowed.
On March 31, 2021, the Department of Justice appointed Justice Harry LaForme and Justice Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré to conduct consultations in relation to the creation of an independent Criminal Case Review Commission.
Hope for the future
Nerissa doesn’t intend to turn herself in and Odelia longs for freedom.
“I wish I knew then what I know now because I know I wouldn’t be sitting here,” said Odelia. “I have a voice today. I’m stronger and I’m not going to give up. I pray my sister Nerissa doesn’t give up and my children don’t give up on me. I just want to go home. I’m so tired of sitting in prison.”