Despite civil court judgment, Winnipeg police won’t reopen investigation into 2004 death of 87-year-old

Winnipeg police say they will not reopen an investigation into the 2004 death of Jessie Garwood, despite a civil court decision this month that the 87-year-old woman’s death was not accidental.

Her son, Jim Garwood, filed a lawsuit in 2019 claiming damages against his former step-daughter, Catherine Johnson. She was the person who discovered Jessie Garwood’s body in the basement of her home in 2004, with extensive injuries.

The civil lawsuit alleged Johnson caused Jessie’s death by either pushing her down the stairs or physically assaulting her.

Johnson failed to show up for the civil trial in Winnipeg on Oct. 3, and Manitoba Court of King’s Bench Justice Theodor Bock made a judgment in Jim Garwood’s favour. The judge awarded monetary damages to Garwood, and accepted allegations in Garwood’s statement of claim as truth.

Police had previously investigated the death, but no charges were ever laid.

After the civil court ruling this month, Garwood said he hoped police would reopen the case.

Winnipeg police have now issued a statement saying they do not intend to reopen or re-examine the case based on the recent court decision. 

“It’s disappointing, but I think I’ve grown used to the idea of the Winnipeg police doing very little and passing up on some of the obvious things that most people would find necessary for a police investigation,” Garwood told CBC News.

The decision from the Winnipeg Police Service is surprising, he said, and there are things like blood spatter evidence that should be re-examined.

“For them to say they don’t want to do anything further is quite, quite astounding,” Garwood said.

‘No further action was warranted’: police

In explaining why the police service is not reopening the case, a spokesperson said police “are unaware of any evidence in addition to that which we have previously received from Mr. Garwood which would require this step.”

“The Winnipeg Police Service as well as an independent agency has previously reviewed the material supplied by Mr. Garwood in addition to the WPS’s own material and determined that no further action was warranted,” spokesperson Ally Siatecki said in the statement.

She noted there is a significant difference in the standard of proof between civil and criminal matters. 

“In a civil suit, the issue is decided on a balance of probabilities, while a criminal case requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Siatecki said.

The lawsuit said Jessie Garwood died of blunt force head trauma, and had lacerations on her head, broken ribs, a fractured arm and wounds to the backs of her hands. 

The injuries were consistent with being caused by an assault, the claim said.

A man with grey hair wearing glasses sits at a desk, reading a document.
Jim Garwood says he’s disappointed that a civil court judgment has not convinced Winnipeg police to reopen the investigation into his mother’s death. (CBC)

In 2011, then Manitoba chief medical examiner Thambirajah Balachandra wrote to the police chief to say that although the death was initially considered accidental, it had been reclassified as “undetermined,” because “the death appears not to be an accident.”

Garwood’s lawyer, Jamie Kagan, said his client “remains hopeful that a reconsideration can take place.”

“He is grateful the civil process has come to a successful conclusion,” Kagan said in an email to CBC News, and “remains optimistic that the City of Winnipeg police would take a statement under oath from the defendant to respond to the serious issues raised in this case.”

Defendant denied causing death

In her statement of defence filed in the civil lawsuit, Catherine Johnson denied assaulting Jessie Garwood and denied causing her death.

Attempts by CBC to contact the defendant, who was living in Arizona, were not successful.

Jim Garwood also wants the Crown to reopen the case, but he says he has not received any information about whether that will happen in the wake of the civil court judgment.

A Justice Department spokesperson told CBC News that as of last week, department officials had “not reviewed the judge’s decision yet, but if any new evidence has been presented the Crown would certainly be prepared to review the case.”

In a 2018 letter, a Crown attorney informed Garwood they were not prepared to pursue a prosecution because there was not a reasonable likelihood of conviction.

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