“You should or ought to have known”: Arthur Interviews John Moore

In 1979, John Moore was convicted of second degree murder for a crime he says he did not commit, and he has been fighting to clear his name ever since.

“Racism is the number one issue in my case,” said Moore. Moore is a member of the Serpent River First Nation, located between Sudbury and Sault Sainte Marie. He was in Toronto to “share his struggle with people,” and “show people that injustices do happen,” at an event organized by the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG).

Moore’s case hinged on a section of the criminal code, repealed in 1987, that said that “if you should or ought to have known about a crime then you’re just as guilty as those who committed the crime.”

On a fateful night in 1977, Moore gave a ride to two men in Sault Sainte Marie. Later that night he ran into them again at a party and drove them home. In the intervening hours the men had murdered Donald Lanthier, an 18-year-old taxi driver. The two men were convicted of murder, and so was Moore based on his association with them that night.

As far as Moore sees it, “according to that law that convicted me, every Prime Minister since John A. MacDonald, every member of the native affairs department, are as guilty as those perverts who killed those native children [in the residential schools].”

Moore served ten years in Millhaven Penitentiary, and has subsequently been subjected to lifelong parole and the limits upon his freedom that entails. The impact of his imprisonment on his two sons is another tragic consequence. “My sons’ memories, birthdays, Christmas, you can’t get that back. It’s lost.” While imprisoned, his father, one of his three sons, the grandmother that raised him and several other members of his family passed away.

Not only does Moore continue to suffer due to a law that is no longer valid, but even in its use during his trial in 1979 it was applied in a manner that was unjust, and racially motivated. Moore was convicted on the basis of having had some association with the killers. A number of other people had a similar association, but none of them were pursued as persistently by the prosecution, and none were convicted. The difference between these people and Moore was that they had white skin and he didn’t.

Another instance of race playing a role in Moore’s case was the selection of an all white jury. The issue of fair representation of Indigenous people on juries is an issue that has heated up lately, with trials becoming backed up in Ontario due to lack of Aboriginal representation on the jury.

The Canadian Charter guarantees, for serious crimes, the right to a fair trial by a jury of one’s peers. But it has been brought to light that Indigenous people have been systematically excluded from the list of eligible jurors. On this basis, Indigenous groups in Ontario have said that their right to a trial by jury of their peers, namely other Indigenous people, has not been met.

As for Moore, he has been building up his base of supporters in his ongoing attempt to get exoneration or a judicial review of his case. Most recently, last May the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted has expressed interest in helping him.

When asked about the possibility for change, Moore admitted that he is skeptical about the possibility of systemic change to prevent racist convictions, pointing out that Native people are vastly over-represented in prisons.

As of 2006, self-identified Aboriginal people made up 3.7 percent of the population of Canada, but 24% of the prison population. Even more startling, Moore alleged that the removal of Native children via Child and Family Services constitutes a continuation of the Residential Schools system. 30% of children in foster care come from an Indigenous background.