Two New Brunswick men who were acquitted Thursday of a 1983 murder for which they served lengthy prison sentences said they were worried they wouldn't live to see their names cleared.

Robert Mailman, 76, and Walter Gillespie, 81, were convicted in 1984 of second-degree murder and received life sentences in the killing of George Gilman Leeman in Saint John, N.B. An appeal was dismissed in 1988.

But last month, Justice Minister Arif Virani quashed the convictions and ordered a new trial, saying new evidence had surfaced that called into question "the overall fairness of the process."

During a hearing Thursday that lasted just over half an hour, the men entered pleas of not guilty. Mailman, who is battling terminal liver cancer and has trouble speaking, spoke in a voice just above a whisper, while Gillespie spoke more forcefully.

Crown prosecutor Karen Lee informed the court she didn't intend to enter any evidence, and Chief Justice Tracey DeWare of the Court of King's Bench said a finding of not guilty was the only verdict available.

"Mr. Mailman and Mr. Gillespie entered this courtroom today, innocent in the eyes of the law as a result of minister Virani's order. They may leave the court today with that presumption of innocence maintained and forever confirmed by the fact that they have been found not guilty," DeWare said.

"It is most regrettable that it has taken 40 years for this day to come."

Mailman nodded as the judge declared her verdict. Gillespie closed his eyes, bowed his head for a few seconds and then looked up. 

Gillespie served 21 years of his life sentence in prison, while Mailman served 18 years. They submitted their application for criminal conviction review in December 2019, and both were on parole awaiting Thursday's decision.

A written submission on behalf of the two men by Innocence Canada, a group that advocates for the wrongfully convicted, said Mailman's "greatest wish was to have his conviction overturned before he died."

He no longer has contact with his family, including his five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, because he "never wanted them to be embarrassed by their association with a convicted killer," the submission said.

"He no longer visits either of his son's gravesites because previous visits resulted in them being vandalized."

Gillespie's only family is his daughter, the submission said.

"Most of his immediate family died in a house fire when Mr. Gillespie was only 20 years old," it said. "He lost a relationship with his only child because of the years he spent in prison."

Leeman's badly beaten and partially burned body had been found by a jogger in a wooded area in the Saint John neighbourhood of Rockwood Park on Nov. 30, 1983. Innocence Canada said Gillespie and Mailman "both had strong alibis with multiple witnesses placing them far from the crime scene on the day of the murder.''

Two eyewitnesses had testified for the Crown in the original trials, and Mailman and Gillespie's 1988 appeal was based on an affidavit from one of them, 18-year-old Josh Arnold Loeman. In the affidavit, he recanted what he had originally told police about the killing. Loeman said that his evidence at the trials was false and that police made him testify to what he said after threatening to charge him with Leeman's murder and send him to prison.

However, in a subsequent letter attached to a police affidavit submitted to the Appeal Court, Loeman said it was his recantation that was false, the result of threats from people associated with Mailman. The Appeal Court concluded the fresh evidence from the defence was not credible and denied the appeal.

Outside the courtroom after they were found not guilty, Gillespie was overcome with emotion. "No," he said, when asked if he ever thought he would see the day when he was a free man.

"I'd just like to thank everybody," he said. "I feel good."

Mailman, who is frail, did not speak and left soon after the court hearing.

Ron Dalton, co-president of Innocence Canada, said it is "better late than never" that the two men were found innocent. But there has been a lot of loss, he added.

"It's too late to fix a lot. These men will never get back their lost years," he said. "Mr. Leeman's family will never get justice for his murder. And the people in New Brunswick deserve better."

The onus is on the New Brunswick government and their justice system to look into the mistakes that were made in the hopes of improving the system for everyone, Dalton said.

Michael Sherrard, the victim's great-nephew, said he wished the two men peace.

"It's a miscarriage of justice. It's a travesty for both people. For them and my uncle George, and it was too bad that had to happen," he said in an interview.

James Lockyer, one of the Innocence Canada lawyers who represented the two men, said there should be a public inquiry into the case, adding that the Saint John police have a lot to answer for. "This case was a disgrace," he said. 

The Saint John Police Force did not respond when asked if they planned to apologize to Gillespie and Mailman.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2024.

This is a corrected story. A previous version's headline said the killing was in 1984.