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Locked up for murder in '94: Were Sask. sisters innocent?

Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance have maintained their innocence for almost 30 years.

Warning: Readers may find some details distressing.

Editor's note: In keeping with the Youth Criminal Justice Act, we aren't identifying the young offender who was also convicted in Joseph Dolff's murder. For clarity, we call him *Jack throughout.  Also, in the 1994 trial transcripts Nerissa’s name is spelled Neressa.

SASKATCHEWAN  — Almost three decades later, the question, were two Saulteaux sisters wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder, lingers.

The 1994 convictions of Odelia and Nerissa Quewezance from Keeseekoose First Nation for the 1993 murder of 70-year-old Joseph Dolff of Kamsack are currently under review by the federal justice department as a possible miscarriage of justice.

“As you know, there is currently a criminal conviction review process that is handled by the Criminal Conviction Review Group (CCRG) within the Justice department,” David Lametti, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada told Monday in an email.

“Individuals who have exhausted their rights of appeal can apply to have their convictions reviewed. As Minister, I cannot comment on ongoing criminal conviction reviews. However, as was made public by Mr. Lockyer, the Quewezance sisters’ case is currently under review, which my departmental officials recently confirmed via letter.”

The sisters have maintained their innocence and a young offender who was also convicted has repeatedly admitted to being the one who stabbed Dolff to death – going so far as admitting it publicly on APTN. The young offender was handed only a four-year sentence but the sisters have remained in prison for 28 years.

Nerissa and Odelia have the support of high-profile advocates such as Senator Kim Pate, Innocence Canada, Kim Beaudin from Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the late David Milgaard and retired judges Justices Harry LaForme and Juanita Westmoreland-Traore – who were appointed by Lametti in 2021 to head the creation of an independent Criminal Case Review Commission to review wrongful convictions.

Sisters met Dolff at residential school

Transcripts of the 1994 trial obtained by reveal that Dolff knew the sisters from St. Phillips residential school where he worked and Odelia and Nerissa attended as students.

Court heard that just before midnight on Feb. 24, 1993, Dolff picked up 18-year-old Nerissa, 20-year-old Odelia and 15-year-old *Jack on the highway near Keeseekoose First Nation and took them to his nearby rural home.

That’s when everything went wrong.

Drugs, alcohol and porn

Court documents reveal that before Dolff picked up Odelia, Nerissa and Jack, they had swallowed and injected intravenously numerous capsules of a drug called Restoril, which Jack had stolen from his grandmother whom he lived with at the time.

The three were at Nerissa and Odelia’s sister’s house where they lived when Jack’s grandmother – who was in a wheelchair because both of her legs were amputated - called the house and said Jack took all of her pills and asked why.

“Even for that Jack wanted me and Odelia to take the rap because he always done that,” Nerissa testified.

At the house Jack, Nerissa and Odelia played cards for a short time but Jack became restless.

“We were high and Jack was acting crazy,” said Nerissa.

Jack got everyone to go with him to his grandmother’s place to use the phone to call Dolff to pick them up.

“Jack knew his number off by heart,” Nerissa testified. “We said ‘no’ for a while and then we went.”

One of Odelia and Nerissa’s family members testified in court that days prior to the murder, Dolff called several times looking for Odelia and Nerissa.

Odelia testified that a couple weeks prior, Dolff had told them to come over when he got paid, that he’d be buying some liquor.

“I visited his house a couple weeks before. He was trying to, he was asking me and my cousin if one of us wanted to sleep with him. He kept pestering about that."

When the trio arrived at Dolff’s home, they sat around for about 10 minutes then asked Dolff to get them beer, court documents reveal. Jack told Odelia to go with Dolff to the Woodlander Hotel in Kamsack. She waited in his vehicle while he went inside. The till receipt shows a 12-pack of beer was purchased at 12:29 a.m. Feb. 25, 1993.

Odelia testified that Joe got “fresh” with her in the car on the way back. She said, “He tried to hold my hand but I wouldn’t let him. He just kept saying ‘will you sleep with me tonight.’ The cops passed us going from the (bar) and Joe said, ‘I better slow down or they will stop me and ask me what I’m doing with you.’”

After returning to Dolff’s house they drank the case of beer and then Dolff brought out a 26-ounce bottle of whiskey at their request.

Nerissa testified that Jack asked Joe, “Are you strong, what would you do if I got rank? Joe said, ‘You want to leave and never come back?’”

Court heard that Joe asked Odelia to go to his bedroom with him.

“I told him ‘no.’ Joe had sent Jack to me and I told him ‘no.’ Then I said, ‘We have to go now’ and Joe said, ‘Do you want to watch a movie.’ I asked to use his phone. I pretended to use the phone so he would take us home. Joe put on a movie. It was a porno movie.

“I just didn’t like watching those kind of movies so I went and sat in the kitchen,” testified Odelia. “It was sick.”

Court heard that Dolff kept “pestering” Odelia to “sleep with him.” At one point she was in his bedroom for five to 10 minutes and that’s when she came across an envelope with $700 and put it in her pocket.

“Joe was a nice person until he started acting like a pervert saying all these dirty stuff to us,” testified Odelia.

“He said that he wanted me to come and spend a week with him and he would be nice to me and all this.”

Nerissa testified, “Joe said he was going to go to bed and Jack said to Odelia ‘why don’t you go to bed with him?” Odelia said ‘no.’ Then Jack said to me, ‘you go to bed with him.’ I said ‘no you go to bed with him.’ Jack asked Joe ‘do you have a nightgown for Odelia?”

Odelia went to the bedroom for about five minutes, testified Nerissa. Jack testified that Odelia was in Dolff’s bedroom and he saw them kissing. They had their clothes on and Odelia came out after about five to 10 minutes.

In her statement to police, Odelia said, “Joe was talking perverted saying that he will take one of us girls out for money and plus he said ‘since he’s the one that bought the beer, that if one of us sleeps with him he will call it even.”

Court documents show that Odelia told Joe, “we are wanted at home,” and she said they had to go. “Then he told me he wanted to lie down with me for a while but I told him ‘no.’

“I said, ‘drive us home right now cause we gotta go.’ Then he called me into his room and I said ‘no we got to f — go home now.’ So, he said ‘OK we will go.’”

The fateful trip back to Dolff’s rural home

The three were waiting in the vehicle for Dolff and Nerissa testified that she and Odelia were arguing because she told Odelia to put the money back.

After Dolff came out and he was driving on the highway to take them home, he stopped the vehicle and said ‘which one of you guys have the envelope with the money in it?” and he said he was going to call the cops. They all denied taking it and Dolff turned the vehicle around and took everyone back to his house.

Odelia testified that, on the way back, she was in the front with Joe, and in the back seat, “Nerissa and Jack were screaming.”

Nerissa testified that as they were headed back to Joe’s house, Jack had said to her, “Let’s kill him.” And she responded, “Shami.”

Nerissa said she tried jumping out of the vehicle but couldn’t because Jack was by one door and the other door was covered with boxes and garbage bags.

“We turned around on the highway. I wanted to jump out of the car because I knew he would find out who took the money. Jack said, ‘Let’s kill him.’ I don’t know what made him say that. It’s only money anyway. I said, ‘Shami.’ That means don’t get worse in Saulteaux.”

Jack testified that Nerissa tried to push him out of the vehicle.

“She opened the door and he was going pretty fast and she tried to push me out and I wasn’t ready. She didn’t want me to do it. Nerissa said she was getting nervous, then she was saying ‘no’ and she said ‘shami I’m getting worse or something,’” testified Jack.

Court heard that Nerissa had no memory of what happened between the incident in the car and when the violence broke out after they arrived back at Dolff’s home.

“I kind of blacked out because I don’t remember too clearly. I remember him, Joe, pulling me around and swinging at me. I was trying to fight back. Somebody hit Joe with a cassette player. He had blood on his face. Jack is crazy in the head. If he wouldn’t have taken those knives nothing would have happened but he had to take those knives."

Jack testified that he said, “Let’s kill him,” because he “didn’t want to get in any more trouble.”

In direct examination, Odelia testified she didn’t know how it started but said that Dolff was hitting Nerissa so she got involved. Nerissa may have said, “Help me,” but Odelia doesn’t remember for sure. She remembers she saw Dolff hit Nerissa but she didn’t know with what.

Under cross-examination, Odelia said, “I got involved when Mr. Dolff bothered my sister. He grabbed her.”

Court documents show that Odelia and Nerissa hit Dolff with a kettle and Odelia threw an ornament at him.

“Jack gave me a small knife,” testified Nerissa. “I threw it down. I knew I didn’t take the other knife. Jack was hitting him. I don’t know why he (was) trying to deny it.”

Court heard Odelia and Jack chased Dolff into his bedroom. Nerissa didn’t follow.

When Jack was stabbing Dolff, Odelia testified that she was in the other bedroom with Nerissa and she said Nerissa was crying.

Nerissa told the court that Odelia and Jack poured a white powder on Joe.

“I didn’t even know that till the cops told me,” she said. “I never went back into the room after I seen Jack stabbing him.”

Court documents reveal Jack told Nerissa to draw a pentagram on Dolff after he was dead but she refused.

Odelia told police that Jack and his friends were into devil worship and one had wanted Jack to drink dog’s blood.

“My grandmother lost three dogs,” said Odelia, adding she said to Jack, “so that’s what happened to the dogs.”

Before fleeing Dolff’s house, Jack put Dolff’s VCR and movies in his blue duffle bag. Jack got the car keys from Dolff’s pocket and they took his vehicle, court documents show.

Police testified in court that the blue duffle bag contained seven tapes with five being “explicitly and primarily pornographic” material.

Conflicting statements and testimony

Nerissa gave three statements to police and Odelia gave two. Both said they suffered blackouts where they have no memory.

Defence witness Dr. John Richardson, professor of the department of pharmacology and professor in department of psychiatry at the U of S College of Medicine, testified that Temazepam, trade name Restoril, is used as a sleeping pill and suppresses brain function, suppresses the area of the brain responsible for judgement and memory. He said Restoril and alcohol are both suppressant chemicals and amplify each other’s actions. He said the fact that the blackouts are not constant throughout that period indicates that the brain compensatory mechanism was fighting against the levels of the drug and the alcohol can compensate for the depressant effects for a period of time allowing there to be some memory.

“So, periods of blackout is consistent with the chemical-induced amnesia.”

He said a struggle would trigger a memory.

“That would be an example of overcoming the depressant effects of the chemicals.”

Dr. Richardson told the court that during an amnesic period itself, the memory trace isn’t put down in the brain so there’s no memory there. He said the brain would attempt to rebuild memory, fill in blanks, and the brain will try to come up with something to fill in these blanks.

He said if an individual has suffered this type of chemical amnesia and someone tells them that something has happened and what they did, that person would incorporate what they were told into their memory of that event. And if they believe the person who was telling them, they would adopt it as their memory rather than actually have remembered it.

Dr. Richardson indicated that the level of consumption of alcohol and drugs Nerissa took would be consistent with her not having an ability to form judgment and also consistent with her having amnesia.

That evening Nerissa swallowed five Restoril capsules and injected three intravenously. She also drank five beer in an hour and then half a bottle of whiskey. Court heard that Nerissa wasn’t experienced with heavy drinking or drug taking. She had alcohol a couple months before the incident and didn’t drink or take drugs for a year prior.

In Nerissa’s three statements to police after she was arrested, she never admitted to stabbing Dolff.

Dr. Richardson testified that something as violent and traumatic as stabbing someone would trigger a memory.

Court documents reveal that Odelia’s involvement is unclear. She also had memory blackouts from excessive drinking and taking large amounts of drugs.

Court documents show that Odelia swallowed four to five Restoril capsules, injected three intravenously, drank four to five beer and seven to eight ounces of whiskey.

When Nerissa and Odelia were held in the Kamsack RCMP cells, Nerissa told police, “Jack is a bullshitter. He is lying and you will find that out... sooner or later. Sooner I hope.”

Nerissa admitted, “We were all fighting with him but Jack was the only one that stabbed him.”

Jack gave three inconsistent statements to police in 1993.  

During Odelia and Nerissa's 1994 trial, however, Jack testified that neither Odelia nor Nerissa stabbed Dolff. He said he was the only one who stabbed him.

Jack testified that Nerissa picked up an ornament, a blue cat, and hit Dolff in the head in the kitchen. He testified that Nerissa and Joe were punching each other and then Odelia jumped in, grabbed a ghetto blaster, and hit him on the head. He said Nerissa also hit Dolff on the head with a kettle, twice or three times.

Jack told the court that he punched Dolff when he ran down the hallway towards his bedroom. He said in the bedroom he put a phone cord around Dolff’s neck and choked him a couple of minutes before he went back to the kitchen and got a knife and stabbed him repeatedly. Then he threw a television set on him.

The autopsy report revealed that Dolff had 15 to 16 stab wounds.  He had 15 stab wounds to his stomach and chest area and one stab wound on his back. His main artery was punctured and his aorta cut. He also had head injuries from a blunt object striking his head. The autopsy report also revealed that at the time of his death, there were no alcohol or drugs in Dolff’s system.

Jack testified that, “Odelia and Nerissa were in the opposite room when I stabbed him. They were crying.”

Jack testified that Nerissa hit Dolff with an ornament and a kettle.

“That’s the only time (Nerissa) was involved... Odelia, all she did was hit him in the head with the (whiskey) bottle, that’s all, when he was trying to go to his room.”

The arrest and Jack’s cover-up

Jack testified that when he got back home from Dolff’s, he crawled through the window. He said he told Nerisssa and Odelia “don’t mention my name to coco and them that I did that and they said OK.”

Odelia and Nerissa, however, were crying when they got home and told their family what happened.

Jack said his dad asked him if he was involved.

“I said ‘no I wasn’t there and after that police came about six, seven o’clock. They picked those two up and they didn’t tell on me, those girls, so I was happy they didn’t.”

Jack’s father had called the RCMP at about 7 a.m., Feb. 25, 1993, telling them that something had happened at Dolff’s house.

Court documents reveal that when police arrived on Keeseekoose First Nation shortly after 7 a.m. on Feb. 25, 1993, to question the sisters and Jack, Jack immediately placed all of the blame on Odelia and Nerissa, saying, “these two killed Joe Dolff.” The sisters were arrested and Jack was treated and interviewed as a witness.

During the 1994 trial, Jack’s grandmother testified that when she saw him around 6 a.m. Feb. 25, 1993, just after the murder, “He wasn’t normal. Like he was, you could tell there was something wrong with him. His eyes didn’t look normal, didn’t look right. Nerissa was crying. Odelia was crying. Jack was pretty calm.”

Nerissa testified that Jack gave each of them $50 “to be quiet and not involve him,” so “we went along with it till the cops picked us up.”

Defence case

Both defence lawyers raised the issue of drunkenness and suggested the proper verdict was manslaughter.

The Crown argued that the two statements from Odelia and three from Nerissa show there was a memory trace and they had the ability to form judgments.

Defence also raised the issue that the sisters were kept at the Kamsack cells for five days rather than being sent to Pine Grove where they were ordered to be sent on a remand warrant Feb. 26, 1993. They argued this contributed to them giving statements that weren’t voluntary to the police after counsel had advised them not to.

Court heard that Nerissa’s lawyer wanted a separate trial for his client.

Judge’s charge to jury

In her charge to the jury, the presiding judge instructed jurors that both accused testified they didn’t have the requisite intent to commit second-degree murder.

“If you believe the evidence of the accused you must acquit them of second-degree murder.”

In considering the evidence of Jack, the judge gave the jury what she called a special warning.

“You should be cautious in accepting his testimony and the reasons are that he is looked upon by the law as an accomplice. He is also involved in the commission of this offence.”

Hope on the horizon

In December 2021, Innocence Canada lawyer James Lockyer, who now represents the sisters, asked the Saskatchewan government to reduce their three-decades-old second-degree murder convictions to manslaughter.

“I have asked Saskatchewan Justice to agree to quashing Odelia and Nerissa’s convictions from second-degree murder and substituting manslaughter convictions in their stead so they can both be released forthwith from prison without any state restraints,” said Lockyer.

A spokesperson from Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice and Attorney General wouldn’t confirm previously with if they have received Lockyer’s proposal, citing their reason being, “Public Prosecutions does not comment publicly on whether it has received correspondence or what actions it is considering in response to requests made through correspondence.”

Justice advocate David Milgaard – who was the victim of Canada’s most notorious wrongful conviction case after he spent almost 23 years in prison for a rape and murder he didn’t commit – repeatedly called on Federal Justice Minister David Lametti to intervene on the sisters behalf.

On May 15, Milgaard died suddenly after a brief illness.

Two weeks later, Lametti’s office announced Canada’s Department of Justice would review the second-degree murder conviction of Nerissa and Odelia Quewezance.

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