It’s a question he can’t escape, one which helped shape his future and still haunts him to this day: could he have prevented the murder of a young Winnipeg woman?
“I’ve always felt an incredible amount of guilt and responsibility that I missed this,” provincial court Judge Ray Wyant told the Free Press in an exclusive interview Monday. “Almost a feeling of being complicit. This is the one thing in my career that has always stuck with me and never left me.”
It has now been more than 33 years since Michele Jewell was raped, tortured, killed and dismembered by her husband, Michael Jewell.
But it is only now, for the first time, Wyant is speaking publicly about his indirect involvement. The veteran judge has written candidly about the tragedy in More Tough Crimes, a new book in which prominent legal professionals across the country were asked to share intimate details of memorable cases. His chapter is called, “The Scars that Never Heal.”
“From time to time, I’ve talked about it with family, with close friends. But I felt the need to keep it alive because it’s always been alive in me and I’ve never been able to shake it,” Wyant said.
Wyant graduated from the University of Manitoba and began his legal career in the late 1970s as a criminal defence lawyer, where he came to know Michael Jewell as a frequent client. The young man had several run-ins with police, mostly of a minor nature. As Wyant puts it, Jewell “provided me with some regular work and a chance to hone my craft.”
Wyant also got to know his client’s wife, Michele. She worked as a nurse in the St. Boniface Hospital cardiac unit and always had her husband’s back, regularly attending his court appearances and paying cash for his legal fees.
“I could never figure out what attracted her to him. He was a scofflaw of sorts with a criminal record, and she was a bright and vibrant young woman with a warm personality and a winning smile,” Wyant wrote.
Their whole world – and Wyant’s as well – would change forever in February 1984.
It had been a few years since Wyant heard from the Jewells, when he learned Michael was in custody on a dangerous driving charge and wanted to apply for bail. Then came the phone call from Michele.
“She begged me not to get him out on bail,” said Wyant.
He says she told him about how the marriage had crumbled, how Michael had repeatedly physically, verbally and emotionally abused her, especially when he would drink too much, which was often. She had filed for divorce, and the hearing was just a few days away.
Wyant says he explained to her how Michael would easily make bail, regardless of which lawyer represented him. He told her everything would be OK. And then he moved on.
“I thought I was doing something really good by reassuring her and making her calm. In retrospect, you really feel like you contributed to what happened,” Wyant said Monday.
Everything would not be OK.
Michael Jewell would make bail, with Wyant as his defence lawyer. Just days later – only hours before the scheduled divorce hearing – he would go to Michele’s apartment, force his way inside and commit a crime Wyant calls “horrific, violent and gruesome.”
Jewell was later arrested in Ontario – and called Wyant asking him to represent him. He refused, instead referring the case to then-colleague Sheldon Pinx.
Jewell was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder and given a life sentence with no shot at parole for at least 25 years. Wyant would leave private practice the following year, joining the Manitoba Prosecution Service. He was appointed as a judge in 1998, becoming the province’s chief judge for seven years beginning in 2002.
Despite the passage of time, he continues to think about that phone call from Michele.
“I think you recognize that from time to time something may happen that you can’t anticipate. But as long as you’ve exercised your proper judgment, that’s all you can do. I’ve had trouble articulating… maybe I feel I didn’t exercise my proper judgment with her,” said Wyant. “By feeling you dismissed it as being something that was probable. And never really thinking that something terrible could happen.”
He’s gone over countless scenarios. Should he have discussed safety planning? Arranged for her to be taken to a safe spot? Declined to continue representing her husband?
Regardless, he believes the outcome eventually would have been the same.
“This isn’t about him. I’m satisfied he still would have done what he did. It’s about her. It really has more to do with that telephone call I got, from someone I knew, and not helping her,” said Wyant.
Since that case, there have been major changes in all aspects of the justice system when it comes to domestic violence. But Wyant says the experience taught him more than any textbook or seminar ever could.
“Cases of domestic violence were treated much differently by prosecutors and judges and lawyers. And by police. Many of them never went to court,” said Wyant. “This gave me a very tragic, first-hand look at the dynamics of domestic violence before we began to think more logically and rationally.”
More Tough Crimes will be launched Wednesday in Winnipeg, 6 p.m., at Chapters Polo Festival.
Read more by Mike McIntyre.
From “The Scars that never heal,” a chapter written by Judge Ray Wyant in the book More Tough Crimes
“Lawyers and judges are not immune to the devastating effects of crime either. In fact, even though we often view events through the rear-view mirror of photographs or eye-witness descriptions, the constant exposure to scenes of violence or depravity can seep through our bodies in silent and discreet ways even though we haven’t witnessed the actual events depicted first hand. Our contact with these events, though removed, is more sustained because it can often be a constant occurrence. Most of us can be affected in unseen and subtle ways that we may not fully understand or appreciate. But all of us are changed in some fashion, changed forever. Like doctors constantly exposed to disease and death, we may think we become immune but very few of us do. How many of us can say we haven’t been, on occasion, moved to tears at the description of the effects of pain on people who appear in court? We may not even understand the life-altering effects that some of our work has on us. We may not even appreciate how we can be affected by memories that sometimes lie buried deep inside us. As a result of my career, I carry painful memories of events that never leave me. Some of those memories have seared into me like a branding iron on cattle. The soul-altering images of children exploited in images of child pornography, for example, are so disturbing it almost defies description. Then there are the images of the poor and wretched, those vulnerable people who appear so constantly before us in court. And, of course, there are memories of specific cases and specific individuals; the effects of which can lead to life-long torment.”
“Michele was only twenty-five years of age at the time of her death, a death that profoundly affected me and changed me forever. It was the beginning of the end of my career as a defence counsel. My days were numbered. By 1985, I had joined the Crown’s office. I have never forgotten Michele and that fateful call a few days before she was killed nor have I forgotten that last meeting with Michael in the jail. I have replayed those events over and over again throughout the intervening years. Sometimes the thoughts come in the middle of the night. What could I or should I have done differently? I know that nothing I did contributed to her death; Michael did what he set out to do. At least I know that intellectually. But emotionally, the scars and the guilt will always be there. Back in 1984, the justice system treated most cases of domestic violence quite differently than today. Subsequent Inquiries into the tragedies changed all of that. By the 1990s, police and prosecution procedures and charging practices changed and it became required that all of us who work in the justice system be trained to know and understand the dynamics of domestic violence and how to recognize it and respond to it in order to protect victims and prevent tragedies. I got into criminal defence work because I wanted to help people and I believed in the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial for everyone. I still believe in those ideals but the case of Michael Jewell tested my beliefs. This case was gruesome but I didn’t leave defence work because of that — many cases are awful and gruesome. I left because of the personal nature of this case and my involvement in it and the personal effect the tragic death of a person I knew had on me. Unfortunately, a dozen or so years later, tragedy struck again when I lost a good friend of mine to yet another senseless murder. It seems you can never escape.”