Jorge Barrera, Mark Blackburn, Francine Compton | Hillman Foundation

2017 Honourable Mention

Jorge Barrera, Mark Blackburn, Francine Compton
Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN)

Rarely do journalists get the opportunity to save lives, but APTN reporter Jorge Barrera did. In 2016, his investigation was instrumental in freeing Connie Oakes, a Cree woman who was wrongfully convicted of murder.

In November 2013, a Medicine Hat, Alberta jury found Connie Oakes guilty of second-degree murder in the death of 48 year-old Casey Armstrong, a man found stabbed, fully clothed, in his bathtub.

Receiving a tip, Barrera began a two-year investigation that would eventually change the course of Connie’s life — and shine a light on the justice system in Medicine Hat.

“Connie killed Casey Armstrong,” Sgt. Brent Secondiak, lead investigator of the Armstrong murder for the Medicine Hat police, said.

“I think the community is safer. I think the process worked in this situation,” Andrea Dolan, Crown prosecutor on the Oakes file, told Barrera.

But Barrera’s story exposed a weak investigation, and a Crown prosecutor who was all too willing to hand an Indigenous woman a life sentence with no hard evidence to back up her case — no murder weapon, DNA, fingerprints or any other type of physical evidence. APTN learned that the evidence police did have, a large bloody boot print found at the scene of the murder, was never tracked back to its owner.

In the end, the Crown’s case against Oakes was constructed entirely on the testimony of a co-accused woman named Wendy Herman Scott, who had signed an agreed statement of facts admitting to be a co-conspirator in the crime, thus granting her a reduced parole eligibility sentence. Scott, a small-time drug dealer in Medicine Hat, has an IQ of 50 and is a compulsive liar. At trial, Barrera discovered that Scott had changed her story on the stand 50 times, of which the Medicine Hat police was well aware.

APTN went to court to obtain the release of Wendy Scott’s police interrogation tapes. After months of legal wrangling, APTN was able to secure three minutes of her interrogation. The footage shows a fidgeting Scott accusing three different people of the murder (including Oakes), telling investigators that she is special needs, and revealing that she was never able to keep her story straight — as played out during the trial.

Barrera also uncovered a potential suspect in Armstrong’s murder after obtaining a prosecutor’s case summary. This summary was never filed in court, was never made part of any public record, nor was ever reported on by media before APTN’s stories. It identified a red car police believe was used in the murder. Barrera tracked down its owner, a woman by the name of Ginger.

Coincidentally, in its April 6, 2016 majority decision overturning Oakes’ conviction and granting her a new trial, the Alberta Court of Appeal also suggested Ginger was a potential suspect in the killing of Armstrong.  The Crown requested a stay of the second-degree charge against Oakes; it was granted on April 28, 2016.

Connie Oakes, who is from the Nekaneet First Nation in Saskatchewan, has publicly thanked APTN and Jorge Barrera for their persistent coverage and believes the network’s investigation played a major role in setting her free.

During the Oakes appeal hearing, the Crown prosecutor handling the case told the courts that a review of how the Medicine Hat Police Service handled the Casey Armstrong murder case was likely.

Connie Oakes was not allowed to see her son while he suffered from cancer and died while she was in prison. She was not allowed to attend his funeral.

If not for Jorge Barrera’s meticulous, dogged investigation it is possible that Connie Oakes would still be in prison today.

Jorge Barrera is a journalist with APTN National News. He has worked across the country and internationally. Before joining APTN, Barrera worked for Canwest News Service, Sun Media and the Moncton Times & Transcript. Barrera also worked in Caracas, Venezuela, for an English-language daily. He won a 2011 Canadian Association of Journalist award and was the J-Source 2012 newsperson of the year.

Mark Blackburn has been with APTN National News for eight years. Before coming to APTN he worked at CBC in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ottawa.

Francine Compton is the Executive Producer for APTN National News in the east, and APTN’s political show, Nation to Nation. Francine is a proud member of the Sandy Bay First Nation in Manitoba.