Wrongfully convicted New Brunswick man dies months after his acquittal

FREDERICTON – A New Brunswick man who spent decades fighting a wrongful murder conviction that landed him and a friend behind bars had just a few months to savor his victory, the organization helping in his legal battle said Saturday when she announced his death.

Innocence Canada, which led the legal battle to clear Walter Gillespie and his friend Robert Mailman of their 1984 murder convictions, said Gillespie died Friday at the age of 80 at his home in Saint John, N.B.

Founder and director James Lockyer lamented the fact that Gillespie had so little time to enjoy the fruits of his decades-long struggle.

“It’s very sad,” Lockyer said. ‘I’m just glad he managed to clear his name before he died. That was so important to him.’

Details about Gillespie’s cause of death were not immediately known.

In January, New Brunswick Court of King’s Bench Chief Justice Tracey DeWare acquitted Gillespie and Mailman, 76, of the 1983 murder of Saint John resident George Leeman and apologized for the “miscarriage of justice.”

Her ruling came after federal Justice Minister Arif Virani ordered a retrial on December 22. He said evidence had emerged that called into question “the overall fairness of the trial.”

Ron Dalton, now co-president of Innocence Canada, took up the men’s cause as he fought for freedom from his own wrongful conviction.

He called Gillespie a “study in strength of character and friendship.”

“For forty years, Gillespie refused to falsely implicate his friend, Robert Mailman, and paid dearly with his freedom,” Dalton said. “A sad end to a difficult but honorable life.”

In an interview in January, about a week after he was formally exonerated, Gillespie talked about the offer of freedom that dangled before him a year after Leeman’s murder.

He said Saint John police told him that if he signed a statement against Mailman, he would be charged with aiding and abetting and receive only three years in prison.

“I said I wasn’t going to do that,” he said. “(The officer) said, ‘If you’re going to protect (Postman), you’re going with him.’”

He spent 21 years in prison.

Gillespie was born on August 31, 1943 in Saint John and had a Grade 6 education. Most of his immediate family died in a house fire when he was about twenty.

His friendship with Mailman predated their shared legal ordeal. The men previously told The Canadian Press they met in 1961, with Gillespie joking that Mailman was checking out his then-girlfriend during one of their first encounters.

They became inseparable after their wrongful convictions and spoke to each other every day for decades.

“We’ve been connected through this for over 40 years. And he’s like a brother,” Mailman said of his friend.

Mailman could not be reached for comment on Gillespie’s death on Saturday, but said through Dalton that he had not been able to sleep well after hearing the news.

In an earlier interview, Mailman described the friend he called Wally as a man of few words.

“You never bother a sleeping junkyard dog,” he said, laughing.

Gillespie leaves behind a daughter with whom he has only recently reconnected.

“We haven’t been in contact for almost 40 years,” he said shortly after his name was cleared. “…I hope I can help her if we can get some money or something like that. I’ve been talking to her a lot these past few days. Oh, it feels great.”

The New Brunswick government reached a settlement with the two men on March 1 for an undisclosed amount.

While on parole, Gillespie lived in a halfway house, where he also worked 15 hours a week as a cleaner.

After being found innocent, he moved into an apartment in Saint John, paying $800 a month. The former hotel room that he described as a prison cell was cramped even with his minimal belongings, brightened only by his own colorful paintings and the set of white towels and a white tea kettle the postman gave him as a housewarming gift.

“Wally shouldn’t have to get out of prison… and go to a halfway house for all those years, only to go to a place worse than what he left behind,” Mailman said of his friend’s spartan quarters.

When Mailman was diagnosed with terminal cancer last November, Gillespie was the first person he called.

Gillespie left the shelter for the day and spent it with his friend when he learned of the life-changing diagnosis.

In addition to his quiet conviction and strong character, Dalton recalled Gillespie’s love of American author Zane Gray’s westerns and his voracious reading habits. He also remembered Gillespie’s ostentatious fashion sense, noting his penchant for bright colors and the black patent leather shoes that he saved for a special occasion and that he eventually wore to court on the day his name was cleared.

But he said Gillespie’s most lasting impact comes from his efforts to uphold justice in Canada’s correctional system.

“Mr. Gillespie helped raise awareness of wrongful convictions in this country and that will be part of his legacy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2024.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press