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What happened to O’Neil Blackett is a ‘tragedy,’ judge says in wrongful conviction case

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Seventeen years after he was convicted of killing a 13-month-old girl, O’Neil Blackett’s battle to clear his name ended where it began.

On Tuesday morning, Blackett stood before a judge in a wood-paneled courtroom at 361 University Ave., the same Toronto courthouse where he was convicted in 2001, based largely on evidence from disgraced Sick Kids pathologist Charles Smith. The 42-year-old clasped his hands behind his back and held his head high.

“I woke up this morning, I was refreshed. I knew what was to come,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “I waited so long.”

Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal set aside Blackett’s manslaughter conviction and ordered a new trial based on fresh expert evidence that sharply criticized Smith’s opinions. Following a review of the case by the attorney general, the ministry concluded there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction,” Crown lawyer Dimitra Tsagaris told the court on Tuesday. The charge against Blackett was withdrawn.

Justice John McMahon called Blackett’s ordeal “a tragedy.”

His victory is the latest development in the continuing effort of the justice system to undo the damage caused by the flawed opinions of Smith, who was once revered as the province’s top expert in cases where children died in unusual circumstances. A decade after a public inquiry exposed oversight gaps in Ontario’s pediatric forensic pathology system that allowed Smith to rise to prominence despite his lack of training and objectivity, some parents who say they were wrongly blamed in the deaths of their children are still fighting to clear their names.

Smith could not be reached for comment.

A complication in many wrongful conviction cases involving Smith’s testimony — including Blackett’s — is that the accused pleaded guilty.

Blackett was looking after Tamara Thomas the day she died in February 1999. When her mother returned from running errands she found the girl lying in her playpen, lifeless and cold to the touch. Blackett was performing CPR on the child when police arrived. He was “distraught and confused,” and denied causing harm, the appeal court ruling states. (At the time, Blackett believed Tamara was his daughter, but says in an affidavit he subsequently learned he was not her father.)

Tamara had a history of intestinal and breathing problems, and had recently been vomiting and losing weight. That afternoon, Blackett had left her in her playpen with a bottle of chocolate milk.

When she died, Tamara was wearing a cumbersome cast to repair a broken right femur. The injury happened a month earlier, while she was in Blackett’s care. He told the paramedics the child’s leg got caught in the wooden spindles of her crib. Police concluded that the crib was unsafe and deemed the injury accidental. Blackett was described by a first responder as an anxious parent who showed concern, and cooperated with a subsequent investigation by children’s aid, the ruling said.

Blackett told police that since being in the cast, “there was a problem with her lying on her back, because she used to throw up whatever we gave her.”

Smith dismissed the possibility that Tamara had choked on her vomit, or died in any other accidental way. In his opinion, she had succumbed to a “mechanical type of asphyxia” due to strangulation or blunt force. He also claimed to have found several additional fractures. Blackett was charged with second-degree murder.

Smith testified at the preliminary inquiry, in November 1999. The trial was set for April 2001. By then, concerns about Smith’s work had begun to emerge. The Crown sought the opinion of another expert, who was largely supportive of Smith’s opinion but warned that unless there was some other evidence to support the Crown’s theory “there will always be doubt as to whether this is the actual cause of death.” A second pathologist, retained by the defence, disputed Smith’s findings.

In August 2001, Blackett reached a deal with the Crown. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to three years and three months in jail, in addition to 15 months of pre-trial custody.

In an agreed statement of facts, Blackett stated that he had become frustrated while feeding Tamara, and forced the bottle violently into her mouth, causing her to choke and vomit, and had “then left her either unconscious or entering unconsciousness, unable to breathe, and she died.”

In his affidavit filed last year in support of his appeal, Blackett said “those facts were not true.” He worried the jury would believe Smith over him because he had a criminal record, and he would receive a life sentence.

“Dr. Smith’s evidence … preyed on my mind,” Blackett said. “I felt trapped by my situation. I decided to plead guilty.”

Blackett’s trial lawyer, Stephen Bernstein, said in an affidavit that his client “had always maintained that he did not know why Tamara died, and insisted that he had done nothing to cause her death.” Bernstein said that he told Blackett that “he should not plead guilty to something that he did not do,” but “that there was a ‘real chance’ he would be convicted of murder if he went to trial.”

The Court of Appeal set aside Blackett’s conviction after four additional forensic pathologists rejected Smith’s conclusions. They proposed possible natural causes but found it was impossible to say how Tamara died.

On Tuesday, Justice McMahon said he was sympathetic to Blackett’s position, and urged vigilance in these types of cases.

“As lawyers and judges, we can’t allow people to plead guilty to things they didn’t do, but I understand why it happens” when the accused is faced with a contradictory expert opinion, he said.

Blackett, who was released on mandatory supervision in October 2003, was accompanied in court by a half-dozen supporters from Innocence Canada and the group’s founding director, James Lockyer — his lawyer.

Outside the courtroom, he embraced Lockyer, who has helped clear the names of nine parents and caregivers wrongly blamed due to Smith’s flawed opinions. In seven of those cases, the accused pleaded guilty, Lockyer said.

Blackett said the nature of his conviction has made it difficult to find work. He said he hopes to start his own business managing musicians.

“This day is a new turning point for me … I can basically start over.” he said. “It’s raining outside, but it’s tears of joy.”

Rachel Mendleson is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @rachelmendleson

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Nostalgia and much more with Starburst XXXtreme

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Get a taste of adventure with Starburst XXXtreme based on the legendary NetEnt Game. The nostalgic themes are sure to capture fans of the classic version as they get treated to higher intensity, better visuals, and features. The most significant element of the game is its volatility. Patience will not be an essential virtue considering the insane gameplay, and there is a lot of win potential involved. It retains the original makeup of the previous game while adding a healthy dose of adrenaline. 

Starburst Visuals and Symbols

The game is definitely more conspicuous than before. The setting happens over a 5-reel, 3-row game grid with nine fixed win lines, which function if a succession from the left to the right reel is present. Only those players that that attain the highest win per bet line are paid. From a visual standpoint, the Starburst XXXtreme slots illustrates lightning effects behind the reels, which is not surprising as it is inherited from the original version. Available themes include Classic, Jewels, and Space. The game is also available in both desktop and mobile versions, which is advantageous for players considering the global pandemic. According to Techguide, American gamers are increasingly having more engaging gaming experiences to socialize to fill the gap of in-person interaction. Starburst XXXtreme allows them to fill the social void at a time when there is so much time to be had indoors. 

Starburst XXXTreme Features

Players get to alternate on three features which are Starburst Wilds, XXXtreme Spins, and Random Wilds. The first appears on reels 2,3, or 4. When these land, they expand to cover all positions while also calculating the wins. They are also locked for a respin. If a new one hits, it also becomes locked while awarding another respin. Starburst XXXtreme offers a choice between two scenarios for a higher stake. In one scenario with a ten times stake, the Starburst Wild is set on random on reels 2,3, or 4, and a multiplier starts the respin. The second scenario, which has a 95 times stake, starts with two guaranteed starburst wilds on reels 2,3, or 4. it also plays out using respin game sequence and features. The game also increases the potential with the Random Wilds feature to add Starburst Wilds to a vacant reel at the end of a spin. Every Starburst Wild gives a random multiplier with potential wins of x2, x3, x5, x10, x25, x50, x100, or even x150.

The new feature is sure to be a big hit with the gaming market as online gambling has shown significant growth during the lockdown. AdAge indicates the current casino customer base is an estimated one in five Americans, so Starburst XXXtreme’s additional features will achieve considerable popularity. 

What We Think About The Game

The gambling market has continued to diversify post-pandemic, so it is one of the most opportune times to release an online casino-based game. Thankfully Starburst XXXtreme features eye-catching visuals, including the jewels and space themes. These attract audience participation and make the gameplay inviting. The game also has a nostalgic edge. The previous NetEnt iteration featured similar visuals and gameplay, so the audience has some familiarity with it. The producers have revamped this version by tweaking the features to improve the volatility and engagement. 

That is characterized by the potential win cap of 200,000 times the bet. Starburst XXXtreme does not just give betting alternatives for players that want to go big. The increase of multipliers also provides a great experience. If the respins in the previous version were great, knowing that multipliers can go hundreds of times overtakes the game to a new level. 

Players should get excited about this offering. All of the features can be triggered within a single spin. Whether one plays the standard game or takes the XXXtreme spin route, it is possible to activate all of the features. Of course, the potential 200,000 times potential is a huge carrot. However, the bet size is probably going to be restricted and vary depending on the casino. It is also worth pointing out that a malfunction during the gameplay will void all of the payouts and progress. Overall, the game itself has been designed to provide a capped win of 200,000 times the original bet. 

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‘We’re back’: Montreal festival promoters happy to return but looking to next year

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In downtown Montreal, it’s festival season.

In the city’s entertainment district, a musical act was conducting a sound check on stage Friday evening — the second day of the French-language version of the renowned Just For Laughs comedy festival. Tickets for many of the festival’s free outdoor shows — limited by COVID-19 regulations — were sold out.

Two blocks away, more than 100 people were watching an acoustic performance by the Isaac Neto Trio — part of the last weekend of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a celebration of music from the African continent and the African diaspora.

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to limit capacity, festival organizers say they’re glad to be back but looking forward to next year when they hope border restrictions and capacity limits won’t affect their plans.

Charles Décarie, Just For Laughs’ CEO and president, said this is a “transition year.”

“Even though we have major constraints from the public health group in Montreal, we’ve managed to design a festival that can navigate through those constraints,” Décarie said.

The French-language Juste pour rire festival began on July 15 and is followed by the English-language festival until July 31.

When planning began in February and March, Décarie said, organizers came up with a variety of scenarios for different crowd sizes, ranging from no spectators to 50 per cent of usual capacity.

“You’ve got to build scenarios,” he said. “You do have to plan a little bit more than usual because you have to have alternatives.”

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MELS new major movie studio to be built in Montreal

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MONTREAL — MELS Studios will build a new film studio in Montreal, filling some of the gap in supply to meet the demand of Hollywood productions.

MELS president Martin Carrier said on Friday that MELS 4 studio construction will begin « as soon as possible », either in the fall or winter of next year. The studio could host productions as early as spring 2023.

The total investment for the project is $76 million, with the Quebec government contributing a $25 million loan. The project will create 110 jobs, according to the company.

The TVA Group subsidiary’s project will enable it to stand out « even more » internationally, according to Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. In the past, MELS Studios has hosted several major productions, including chapters of the X-Men franchise. The next Transformers movie is shooting this summer in Montreal.

Péladeau insisted that local cultural productions would also benefit from the new facility, adding that the studio ensures foreign revenues and to showcase talent and maintain an industry of Quebec producers.

STUDIO SHORTAGE

The film industry is cramped in Montreal.

According to a report published last May by the Bureau du cinéma et de la télévision du Québec (BCTQ), there is a shortage of nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space.

With the addition of MELS 4, which will be 160,000 square feet, the company is filling part of the gap.

Carrier admitted that he has had to turn down contracts because of the lack of space, representing missed opportunities of « tens of millions of dollars, not only for MELS, but also for the Quebec economy. »

« Montreal’s expertise is in high demand, » said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who was present at the announcement.

She said she received great testimonials from « Netflix, Disney, HBO and company » during an economic mission to Los Angeles in 2019.

« What stands out is that they love Montreal because of its expertise, knowledge and beauty. We need more space, like MELS 4, » she said.

There is still not enough capacity in Quebec, acknowledged Minister of Finance, the Economy and Innovation Eric Girard.

« It is certain that the government is concerned about fairness and balance, so if other requests come in, we will study them with the same seriousness as we have studied this one, » he said.

Grandé Studios is the second-largest player in the industry. Last May, the company said it had expansion plans that should begin in 2022. Investissement Québec and Bell are minority shareholders in the company.

For its part, MELS will have 400,000 square feet of production space once MELS 4 is completed. The company employs 450 people in Quebec and offers a range of services including studio and equipment rentals, image and sound postproduction, visual effects and a virtual production platform.

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