For 33 years Jim Lowry put accused criminals in jail. Now he’s defending them.
The personable Torontonian joined the city’s police force in 1976, a year out of high school. He rose from walking the beat to probing complex white-collar frauds.
He loved the job, but that changed after he started investigating fellow officers. He hit what he calls “a blue wall” within senior police ranks. “It was an eye-opener, to say the least,” says Lowry.
“My attitude towards the police service changed 180 degrees.”
Now he taken on a new role: criminal defence lawyer.
He and his wife Lisa have moved to Winnipeg and, at 58, he is articling with the criminal defence firm Bueti Wasyliw Wiebe, having just finished studies at the University of Ottawa law school.
He is defending accused criminals against the “boot-heel of the state,” as he has put it, and is working to hold the justice system to account. “You might not be able to change the system, but you sure as heck can make a dent in it,” he says.
As a police officer, Lowry played by the rules and enjoyed helping people. He fondly remembers saving the life of a woman slumped unconscious over her car seat at night, a suicide note on her dashboard. He would sometimes give offenders a break if they seemed to be good people who had slipped up.
As a fraud squad detective, his skill in handling complex financial files caught the eye of superiors. They recruited him for a new task force formed in 2001 to investigate long-standing allegations of corruption in the city’s elite drug squads. For years, defence lawyers complained drug squad detectives, notably those led by Det. John Schertzer, were beating and robbing clients and lying in court.
Amid rising concerns, then-police chief Julian Fantino formed a 30-odd member special task force led by a respected outsider, then-RCMP Chief Supt. John Neily. It was to be the biggest police corruption investigation in Toronto’s history. Eleven years later, an Ontario Superior Court jury convicted Schertzer and four former underlings of attempting to obstruct justice. Three of them were also convicted of perjury. All were sentenced to 45 days of house arrest, an anticlimactic end to the multimillion-dollar investigation and prosecution.
When the task force was formed, Fantino told its members they were “doing God’s work.” But as time went on, it became clear some of the Toronto force’s top brass were undermining them, recalls Lowry. “Now I’m not going to say it was the chief, but you had several senior officers that would do things that I would question ethically,” he says. “I was disgusted at what I saw.”
Lowry recalls himself and his task force colleagues suffering indignities, great and petty. One police supervisor replaced their cars with dirty clunkers and took away their garage door openers. “It was just done to get under our skin,” says Lowry.
They developed anxiety problems. Several sought psychological counselling. Some got dental work for teeth they nervously ground down. Marriages crumbled. Lowry took tranquilizers for the first and only time in his life.
Some cop suspects seemed off limits to the investigation, says Lowry. A senior officer ordered him and a colleague to hand over an internal investigatory file on a drug squad detective. Such briefs usually went to the force’s trial preparation office. Lowry later learned the six-month limitation period for prosecuting the officer on disciplinary charges had lapsed because the file was lost. “There is no way that could’ve happened unintentionally,” he says.
Task force detectives adopted the motto, “Integrity is non-negotiable.” They later cynically added “. . . Sometimes. It just depends.”
Lowry came to believe he could never reform the force from within. “People have tried,” he says. “You run into that blue wall of silence.”
Officers who file complaints about colleagues risk being disciplined themselves and, if they wait until they retire to blow the whistle, are discounted as having done nothing while in uniform, he says.
It dawned on Lowry that if he became a lawyer he could stay in the milieu he loves — criminal law — while challenging unfair practices. “I know the shortcuts that can be taken, the Charter abuses that can happen, how the various police services attempt to make the system work — certain things that are done in, I’ll say, an underhanded or unfair way.”
Lowry grew up in a middle-class west Toronto neighbourhood. His father was a senior executive at Toronto Hydro. His mother was a legal secretary. He has one sister, a commercial artist. At Runnymede Collegiate, he scraped by academically, joined the army reserves, and set his sights on the military or police, eventually opting for the Toronto force.
Ambitious to advance his policing career, he took a part-time pre-university course at the University of Toronto. He went on to earn an honours BA in criminology and history, scoring high marks. In 2009, he was one of few applicants without a common law degree accepted into the master of laws program at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School. Two Crown attorneys soon talked him into training to be a lawyer.
Lowry toyed with the idea of becoming a Crown. But his performance for the defence at the Ottawa law school’s moot court impressed his classmates and professors. He recalls being told: “Jim, are you sure you want to be a Crown? You better pick the right side.”
Canadian Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Derek MacInnis, an Ottawa law school classmate, says Lowry was his criminal law mentor and helped him raise his academic average by a letter grade. Although Lowry has no axe to grind against police, his experience “gives him a certain determination to see that justice is done,” says MacInnis.
Lowry’s old boss on the corruption task force, Neily, believes Lowry is driven more by the law’s intellectual challenge than a desire for vengeance. “Jim is a really smart guy and he’s very analytical,” says Neily. “He’s also got a very high watermark as far as his personal values go.”
University of Ottawa law professor Adam Dodek says Lowry enriched his classes with his real-life experiences. “He’ll be uniquely placed to practise criminal defence law.”
Lowry tested his defence skills in the summer of 2012 by assisting Toronto criminal lawyer Jaki Freeman. She calls him “hard-working, bright, intelligent, engaging.” She recalls one preliminary hearing in which police officers were testifying about procedures. “Jim just leaned over and said, ‘That’s absolute hogwash. That’s not what they do.’ For times like that it was amazing having him sit in the courtroom with me.”