Convicted B.C. killer did not understand consequences of his guilty plea, appeal court hears

A psychologist and psychiatrist who evaluated Phillip Tallio before the guilty plea that landed him in prison for most of his life both testified this week that they believed he did not have the intellect to understand the seriousness of his situation.

One expert recalled that Tallio thought pleading guilty in October to the murder of his cousin might mean a better chance of getting home for Christmas.

Dr. Peggy Koopman, a registered psychologist, told the B.C. Court of Appeal in Vancouver on Monday that Tallio had a “blind faith” that somebody — perhaps his defence lawyer —  was going to come and save him.

“Phil Rankin was his rescuer,” Koopman said, referring to Tallio’s lead lawyer. “He was sort of trusting … it would come out OK.”

Tallio ended up behind bars for 37 years, imprisoned for the sexual assault and murder of his 22-month-old cousin Delavina Mack in April 1983 in the Central Coast community of Bella Coola, B.C. A historic appeal of his sentence is underway based on serious concerns about his two alleged confessions, Tallio’s cognitive limitations and a tunnel-visioned police investigation that ignored the possibility of other suspects.

Koopman was hired by Tallio’s defence team to consult on his overall intellect and understanding of legal proceedings before his murder trial. She interviewed and tested Tallio for several days before the trial began in October 1983.

The psychologist said he could be easily confused if questions weren’t worded the right way, sometimes becoming agitated and answering with what he thought people wanted to hear just so people would stop asking. She said Tallio, then 17, operated at the cognitive level of a 12 year old, unable to understand the court proceedings.

“It was suggested to him that he would plead to second-degree murder. I remember him saying, very clearly, ‘This means I’m not guilty,'” Koopman recalled.

“His idea was that he was going to be not guilty because they weren’t charging him with first-degree murder anymore,” she continued.

“He said to me, ‘I hope I’m going to be home by Christmas.’ “

Phillip Tallio listens as a Crown prosecutor asks him questions at an appeal court hearing where he is applying to withdraw a guilty plea to second-degree murder. (Jane Wolsak/CBC)

The Crown challenged Koopman on the recollection in cross-examination, pointing out that the exchange about the holidays isn’t anywhere in her case notes from that time. The psychologist said she relayed her concerns directly to Tallio’s lawyer.

“You warned Mr. Rankin that Mr. Tallio might misunderstand what a plea of second-degree murder was?” asked Crown lawyer Janet Dickie.

“Absolutely,” Koopman said.

Tallio never admitted guilt, experts say

Tallio was arrested for Mack’s murder within 24 hours of her death. The RCMP officer who allegedly took his confession during a third round of questioning claimed the audio-recorder malfunctioned when the teen admitted his guilt. 

Koopman said Tallio had never admitted guilt to her, despite them developing a level of trust during their interviews together. A psychiatrist who worked at the B.C. Forensic Psychiatric Institute and testified in appeal court this week said Tallio never admitted guilt to her, either.

Dr. Emlene Murphy, a registered forensic psychiatrist, met with Tallio the night he arrived at the forensic institute for a court-ordered assessment on April 25, 1983. Over the course of several meetings, Murphy found Tallio was “not very accessible [and] irritable” with “a low IQ,” but not necessarily mentally ill. 

Murphy referred Tallio to a colleague at the institute for a second opinion: Dr. Robert Pos.

Pos, a controversial psychiatrist who has since died, claimed he asked Tallio a question after reviewing his case and Tallio allegedly gave answers suggesting he was guilty.

But Pos’s methods were widely seen by other psychiatrists as “objectively dangerous and unreliable,” according to appeal documents. Pos allegedly believed he could tell psychopaths from the bulge of their veins and the way the hair on his own neck stood up in their presence.

Tallio has said he never even met with Pos.

The murder conviction ultimately hinged on the two confessions in question.

Phillip James Tallio was 17 when he was convicted of second-degree murder for the 1983 death of a toddler in a small coastal town. The case is now in front of the B.C. Court of Appeal in Vancouver. (Submitted by Rachel Barsky)

Crime scene left unsecured for hours, court hears

On Tuesday, court also heard from the former RCMP officer who was first on the scene of Mack’s murder. Bruce Hulan, who is now retired, said he arrived at the Mack home to find Delavina’s grandmother carrying the child’s body to the truck to take her to the hospital. Hulan remembered seeing Tallio standing outside the house with other members of the family.

Hulan spent seven or eight minutes inside the house after arriving, court heard. He took three photos, seized six exhibits as evidence —  including stained bed sheets —  and left after he was called to the hospital.

The officer left the murder scene unattended, telling Delavina’s grandfather not to let anybody in the bedroom until more police arrived. The crime scene was not secured until at least 10 a.m., Hulan said.

There was no direct evidence linking Tallio to the murder at the time of his trial. 

Final submissions in the appeal begin on Nov. 23. If Tallio wins, the nearly four decades he spent in jail will be the longest time any Canadian has served for a wrongful conviction.

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