We’ve all had clients convicted of crimes when we were sure of their innocence. I have two as I stand here. I can remember them, and they haunt me. You wonder, was it my fault? And you’re bound to blame yourself. In the two cases that haunt me, I have no doubt it was my fault.
But the problem is I’m not the one who has to serve the time because I messed up; it’s some poor individual and likely poor in every sense of the word who is going to have to do my time. And we know it can happen to anyone, from a judge of the Quebec Court of Appeal wrongly convicted of first degree murder in 2012 to a 14 year-old boy in Clinton, Ontario, wrongly convicted in 1959.
– James Lockyer, Sopinka Lecture, CLA conference, November 19, 2021, For the Defence, Aug. 2022, p. 9.
I’ve been reading a lot about wrongful convictions the last few years. There are no shortage of Canadian ones, but I have also been reading about other ones. Adnan Syed is a recent, notorious US wrongful conviction recently all over the news. Jacob Hoggard’s recent conviction and sentence has been all over Canadian news – it remains to be seen, but I have a strong suspicion that it is a legal (and/or factual) wrongful conviction – I wouldn’t mind the trial transcripts, if anyone has access to them. Further, I think the US criminal trial rules are more robust than Canada’s (for example, the state cannot appeal acquittals there), which makes the almost–daily stories of US wrongful convictions that much more concerning. In this post, I will discuss some of the ones I have been reading about (specifically, Donald Marshall Jr., Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin), and some common themes I’ve noticed. Please also see my detailed post about Steven Truscott, a grisly 1959 wrongful conviction of a 14 year-old boy (referenced above by the legendary James Lockyer – the other reference is to Justice Delisle.
Donald Marshall Jr.
Donald Marshall Jr. was a young, Indigenous male wrongly accused and convicted of murder in 1971 in Nova Scotia. He was released in the early 80s and it hit the public consciousness in 1986 with the release of the book Justice denied: The law versus Donald Marshall: Harris, Michael: 9780771596902: Books – Amazon.ca. Following the public outcry, a Royal Commission was struck (predictably), which ultimately criticized very harshly just about everyone involved in the case – up to and including the Court of Appeal justices who ultimately allowed the appeal.
I read Justice Denied, as well as a shorter book by Bill Swan, Real Justice: Convicted for Being Mi’kmaq: The story of Donald Marshall Jr.: Swan, Bill: 9781459404397: Books – Amazon.ca (one in a series of books about wrongful convictions – there’s also one on Truscott, Milgaard, Morin, Rubin Carter (U.S.), etc.).
Marshall and a young friend, Sammy Seale, were in a park late at night. Whether they were talking to or attempting to shake down an older man and his friend is not entirely clear. Either way, the older man stabbed Seale, killing him. Marshall ran away, but not before getting a minor gash on his arm from the knife (the man attempted to kill him, too). Marshall gave his story to police, and several friends backed up his story (they didn’t see the actual stabbing, but were there before and after). The police refused to accept Marshall’s story and insisted on pinning the murder on Marshall. They bullied his friends into testifying against him – openly suborning perjury by pressuring his friends into claiming they saw Marshall stab Seale and whatever other details the police insisted on feeding them.
At trial, Marshall was wrongly convicted. Among other things, the trial judge refused to allow the defence to question a key prosecution witness about his recantation of his evidence (right there at the courthouse). A week or so after the wrongful conviction, the young man who accompanied Roy Ebsary (the actual murderer) confessed to police about what exactly happened. The police refused to take it seriously, nor to disclose it to defence.
At trial, the prosecution insisted on showing the gory evidence – in all its detail – to the jury. Not at all for the purpose of inflaming emotions, of course. Another theme prominent in Lucas, below.
The Crown’s expert testified that Marshall’s injury was likely not self-inflicted. At trial, he claimed it was possibly self-inflicted. See what he did there? The Crown further attempted to get the jury to believe that there was no bleeding from Marshall’s injury that required 10 stitches (Justice Denied, p. 133). To that end, he openly misrepresented the evidence of one witness (Maynard Chant) to the jury – Chant had confirmed the arm was bleeding. The Crown wanted the jury to believe he had not bled, so that the blood on his jacket would have to have come from someone else (i.e. Seale). There wasn’t much forensic testing of blood back then – even now, forensic testing tends to not be done (or not disclosed, anyway) in cases where it doesn’t favour the Crown.
Crown tried to use “I hate cops” tattoo on his arm against him (195). Irrelevant bad character evidence clearly as popular then as it is today in manufacturing wrongful convictions.
Defence tried to cross-examine officer about crucial conversation between this officer and another witness (Chant). Crown objected on the basis of “hearsay” – given that the accused was not present for the conversation (144) – a pretty popular tactic (then and now) to try and minimize unfavourable evidence. The judge refused to allow the question, noting that the defence could ask when they questioned Chant. The author points out that it would be just as impermissible to ask the question of Chant as it was (supposedly) to ask it of the officer (146). Thankfully, when the Crown tried that objection later, he was unsuccessful (164). Chant admitted that he did not tell police anything at the time about the identity of the attacker – on 3 distinct occasions. Of course, his earlier statements to police were never provided, as police took even more “liberties” with disclosure back then than they do now.
Some very well-coached Crown witnesses were not providing the hoped-for testimony (regarding time of incident, other people around (151). At the prelim, Chant claimed he saw Marshall pull a knife out of his pocket and stab the victim. At trial, he said he saw him pull something out of his pocket, and he wasn’t sure what it was (155). The Crown “saved” that mistake by later reading out the transcript in the presence of the witness – clearly reminding him of his previous “forgotten” testimony. Suborning perjury again, methinks (159).
The witness didn’t recognize the attacker at the time and didn’t remember what the attacker had “hauled” out of his pocket. After much “gentle” prodding by both the Crown and the judge – mostly without the jury present – he adopted his previous perjury – for the most part (162). The judge also asked more questions at the end of his testimony – further reinforcing the evidence.
Meanwhile, the other main Crown witness, John Pratico, an extremely troubled young man, tried to recant his entire testimony before testifying – in the presence of one of the defence lawyers, the Crown, and Marshall’s father. He said his previous statement that he saw Marshall stab the victim wasn’t true. The Crown reminded him of the penalty for perjury – a common tactic designed to encourage perjury, ironically – if the false story is changed, the accused is threatened with “perjury.” It worked. His trial testimony was more-or-less what the Crown hoped for – pure perjury. He was actually very drunk at the time of the murder – as he admitted at trial (171) – Crown tried to use his admission to drinking to show his “honesty” – 213 – a common pathetic trick these days, as well. He admitted to telling another kid, Tom Christmas, that Marshall hadn’t stabbed Seale. He claimed to see the stabbing – despite being drunk – and that Marshall stabbed with his right hand – he was actually left-handed (note that the cut to his arm was to his left arm).
When defence tried to ask him about his recantation the day before, it was mostly shut down by the judge, “limiting” the defence to “relevant” matters – essentially deciding it was not relevant (how convenient! – 177). No one told the defence about Pratico’s being a patient in a psychiatric institution. The Crown and judge both seemed “convinced” that someone had “tampered” with Pratico, given that he had tried to recant some of his perjury (181). The Crown then brought up Tom Christmas (another Marshall friend) “threatening” Pratico, mentioned the associated charges, then conveniently neglected (he’d “momentarily forgotten” this detail – 183) to mention that he himself had previously withdrawn the charges – as they were obvious lies. Obstruction of justice by falsely accusing Christmas of same, no doubt.
This time, unlike in Truscott’s wrongful conviction, the accused chose to testify in his own defence. Not that it made much difference. He was railroaded all the same.
Credibility, reliability entirely the issues at trial. As in many of these cases, no “hard” evidence. Nothing but lies for the Crown case. As usual, the Crown got a wrongful conviction, and we’re all left scratching our heads wondering how it happened – on one of the rare occasions that we acknowledge a wrongful conviction.
The judge’s charge to the jury was very obviously biased against the accused (suggesting no motive to lie for Chant, for example, and that his flip-flopping was less than material, and that there was no evidence Chant and Pratico were “in cahoots” – 215-8). I guess there wasn’t “evidence” either that it was a complete frame job by the police, either.
The guilty verdict followed a mere 4 hours after the charge to the jury. The judge thanked counsel – praising the Crown for “displaying an attitude that was in the best tradition of the profession of law” (219). Did he mean by the Crown’s obstructing justice, suborning perjury or inducing a wrongful conviction? It’s not clear.
The sentence was life imprisonment – thank goodness capital punishment was abolished in Canada a few years before (de facto abolished in 1963, formally in 1976).
A few days after the wrongful conviction, the police had a witness (MacNeil) who actually witnessed the murder try to tell them what he knew. He was told to get lost, essentially – by both police and the Crown, after police very briefly questioned the actual murderer (believing his pathetic and self-serving denial and after he passed a lie detector test, despite having a very related criminal record involving a knife). Also, some of the Crown witnesses had previously told police versions of events similar to what the truth actually was – a truth practically beaten, of course, out of them by the police and Crown, and not disclosed to defence). Of course, defence was not told of any of this. Meanwhile, Marshall had been appealing his conviction – this information may have been helpful on a fresh evidence application.
Marshall had to lie (pretend he was guilty) to satisfy the prison officials to move him to a medium security institution (this is extremely common nowadays, too, particularly at parole hearings – heaven help a wrongfully convicted person who refuses to “admit” guilt or otherwise confess).
In 1981, Marshall was introduced by chance to the person who witnessed the murder. He then wrote to the actual murderer (Roy Ebsary), pleading with him to admit to his crime. He wrote, “I pray that you’ll be honest about it and ask God to give me the strength to forgive you and to forgive the people that were involved with my Trial” (308). Finally, the police opened a proper investigation into the wrongful conviction, and quickly determined the truth. He was finally allowed out on parole in 1982 – once it started to become obvious that he was, in fact, innocent.
After the fresh evidence hearing on appeal, both Crown and defence recommended an acquittal. The Crown’s factum included this gem: “it seems reasonable to assume that the public will suspect that there is something wrong with the system if a man can be convicted of a murder he did not commit” (366). YA THINK?
Apparently, the new story that Marshall provided to the new RCMP investigator Harry Wheaton was that he and Seale were attempting to rob Ebsary when the latter stabbed them. This was consistent with the story Ebsary finally told the investigator. Previously, Marshall had testified that they had merely offered cigarettes to Ebsary when Ebsary got angry at them. Bill Swan strongly criticizes this version (of a robbery) as having been pressured out of Marshall by the investigator in Marshall’s eagerness to get released from prison, even though it may have not been the truth (p. 155). Apparently, the Commission in 1989 was also highly critical of this detail, finding that Wheaton had placed stress on Marshall to induce this “detail.” It also served to partially absolve the system of its misconduct and greatly reduced the amount of compensation he was entitled to.
The Crown went on to blame the accused for his wrongful conviction – as appalling as it was false. Somehow, to uphold the “integrity” of the system, we need to blame the victims of it. What a joke. No mention at all of any of the perjury suborned by both the Crown and police, surprisingly. Shockingly, the 5 justices of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal endorsed the Crown’s historical revisionism, disgracefully agreeing with the Crown that his wrongful conviction was entirely his fault (paras. 79-85, emphasis added – R. v. Marshall,  N.S.J. No. 322 (NSCA) (QuickLaw/Google) – 48 pages):
Donald Marshall, Jr. was convicted of murder and served a lengthy period of incarceration. That conviction is now to be set aside. Any miscarriage of justice is, however, more apparent than real.
In attempting to defend himself against the charge of murder Mr. Marshall admittedly committed perjury for which he still could be charged.
By lying he helped secure his own conviction. He misled his lawyers and presented to the jury a version of the facts he now says is false, a version that was so far-fetched as to be incapable of belief.
By planning a robbery with the aid of Mr. Seale he triggered a series of events which unfortunately ended in the death of Mr. Seale.
By hiding the facts from his lawyers and the police Mr. Marshall effectively prevented development of the only defence available to him, namely, that during a robbery Seale was stabbed by one of the intended victims. He now says that he knew approximately where the man lived who stabbed Seale and had a pretty good description of him. With this information the truth of the matter might well have been uncovered by the police.
Even at the time of taking the fresh evidence, although he had little more to lose and much to gain if he could obtain his acquittal, Mr. Marshall was far from being straightforward on the stand. He continued to be evasive about the robbery and assault and even refused to answer questions until the court ordered him to do so. There can be no doubt but that Donald Marshall’s untruthfulness through this whole affair contributed in large measure to his conviction.
We accordingly allow the appeal, quash the conviction and direct that a verdict of acquittal be entered.
No doubt this dubious opinion from the NSCA adversely affected his compensation. It also reflects the grossly unethical inability of “the system” to admit fault – also something seen nowadays all the time. The judgment is – correctly – called “pitifully grandiose and self-serving” (369). The “judgment was quickly assailed in the press as a political rather than a judicial document, a mere whitewash” (369). Does anyone criticize the judicial system like that these days? Even a whisper that our justice system might be slightly political is generally roundly denounced these days – blasphemy! In Canada, of course – in the US, I understand criticism of the justice system is allowed.
When it came to compensation, the Crown refused to release its file to Marshall’s lawyer – adversely affecting his quantum of compensation (the less of their misconduct he know of, the better – from its perspective). He was finally offered $270,000 in 1984 – inclusive of his legal bills – an absolute pittance, which he accepted, because he was desperate. He also needed to waive the right to sue.
The actual murderer was eventually sentenced to one year of jail for the cold-blooded murder, the same offence a young Marshall was wrongly sentenced to life in prison for (R. v. Ebsary, 1986 CanLII 4648 (NS CA).
The entire 7-volume 1989 Royal Commission results appear to be available here. A brief 44-page synopsis is available here. It includes the following scathing comments about the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal (reproduced at Bill Swan, p. 155):
We are at a loss to understand how the Court of Appeal could conclude that there was no miscarriage of justice when, on the evidence before it, Marshall’s conviction was secured by perjured testimony obtained through police pressure, and his counsel was precluded from full cross-examination because of lack of disclosure by the Crown.
For any citizen to spend eleven years in jail in a federal penitentiary for a crime he did not commit constitutes – even in the narrowest sense – a miscarriage of justice in the extreme.
Apparently, the Canadian Judicial Council struck an investigation into the Court of Appeal’s conduct – almost unheard of these days on wrongful convictions, unfortunately. See p. 36 of its findings, strongly criticizing the NSCA for stating that it was not a miscarriage of justice. Despite the NSCA’s “legal error” and “inappropriate comments,” the CJC decided not to remove the judges from office (p. 39). Ah well. Shocking result when compared to that of Judge Camp – a blog post I need to get to already.
See also A scathing report | Maclean’s | FEBRUARY 5, 1990 (macleans.ca) and Eleven years of hell | Maclean’s | SEPTEMBER 8, 1986 (macleans.ca).
Another thing was his junior appeal lawyer (Stephen Aronson) worked mostly pro bono and suffered from burnout, quitting law after the experience. Similarities with Ross Mackay, below.
Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin
I read a terrific book about famed defence counsel Ross Mackay: Ross Mackay, The Saga of a Brilliant Criminal Lawyer: And his big losses and bigger wins in court and in life: Batten, Jack: 9781988824390: Books – Amazon.ca (2020). He is also referred to by James Lockyer in his 2021 Sopinka Lecture quoted above. A terrific defence lawyer who battled personal demons (addictions and whatnot) and died at 51 years old. The above two convictions were the last executions in Canada, and Mackay defended both (2 weeks apart, mind you) in 1962. The first (Lucas) seems to be almost certainly a wrongful conviction, while Turpin’s is 50/50, I’d say. See The end of the rope: The story of Canada’s last executions | The Star
Lucas was accused of a double murder in Toronto. There was almost no evidence of his guilt, other than a ring at the scene which had belonged to him (Lucas claimed to have pawned the ring). Police officer (Fallis) had seen Lucas in a diner the morning of the incident and would have made a helpful alibi witness had he been willing to assist Mr. Lucas (spoiler alert: he wasn’t).
On the morning of Day 1 of Lucas’ trial, the experienced Crown (Henry Bull) informed a young Mackay that he wanted to advance a last-minute motion to try the accused on both victims together. The main concern for Mackay was an extremely graphic photograph would now be entered into evidence before the jury, where it otherwise wouldn’t need to be. Helpfully, the Crown opined that it would “do no injustice to the accused” (p. 111). Technically, the judge denied the Crown’s application (in that he did not put both murders on the same information), but he allowed the application insofar as to allow the photographs from the non-related murder into the first trial. Ross had “the horrible feeling that Bull had suckered him. Bull was going to get the explicit and grisly photo of Newman shown to the jury” (p. 113).
When Mackay later objected to the photos on the obvious grounds of prejudice, Bull insisted they were needed to show the location of the injuries. Justice McRuer agreed with Bull “every step of the way” and went so far as to asset “I am quite sure the jury will not have their minds inflamed.” Did I mention, the judge was Jim McRuer AKA “Hanging Jim” – celebrated in this book, and later Chief Justice of Ontario.
Then, Bull introduced into evidence the blood-soaked bedsheets, leaving them in the courtroom for the next few days. Mackay later said, “there was no doubt in my mind that the stench of the bloody sheets effectively denied Lucas a fair trial” (p. 114). Duh!
For Lucas’ cross-examination, McRuer often joined Bull “in a kind of tag-team questioning” (p. 121). They focused on Lucas’ lifestyle as a pimp – entirely irrelevant to the charges and entirely prejudicial bad character evidence, likely to sway the jury toward conviction (surprise!). A law student observing the trial (Nancy Morrison – later a judge in BC) observed that the words being “hammered” at the jury throughout the trial were “pimp” and “Detroit.” To her, it seemed that Mackay “got no breaks whatsoever from the judge. But the Crown did” (p. 123).
During Mackay’s closing submissions, McRuer interrupted to admonish him that circumstantial evidence had more substance than Mackay was allowing for, and to accuse him of conjecture (p. 125).
The Crown’s closing (predictably, not at all interrupted by McRuer) suffered from some major flaws, including suggesting he had called all the evidence had had promised to (in fact he hadn’t; he had promised to exhibit slightly bloody clothing of Lucas’ and hadn’t) and suggested that Lucas’ testimony was new (in fact, he had given largely the same story to Detroit police officer McCarty – Mackay later regretted not subpoenaing McCarty to testify – although he likely would not have attended – and when appellate counsel later wrongfully blamed Mackay for the wrongful conviction it was largely on this ground).
A mere 2 weeks after Lucas was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to hang, Ronald Turpin’s trial began. The trial judge (George “Bill” Gale – also later Chief Justice of Ontario) insisted on starting the trial earlier – to Mackay’s great dismay and despite his desperate plea not to do so.
Turpin was charged with murder for killing a police officer (Nash). He insisted it was self-defence and the officer had shot first. He was well-known to police, and had good reason to believe they would kill him on sight, as he was considered armed and dangerous.
On the first day of trial, Mackay tried to have the trial moved out of Toronto, and hence adjourned by default. Gale refused the application, “seizing on the one misstep Mackay took in his pleadings” (p. 141). Examples of pre-trial negative publicity cited by Mackay included one in a tabloid called “Hush Free Press,” with Gale opining that it was “a rag circulated amongst persons who have peculiar tastes.”
The Crown was Arthur Klein. The defence was essentially self-defence. Turpin testified, obviously.
In Gale’s charge to the jury, he “left no doubt which side he preferred” (p. 157).
“You heard of his way of life,” Gale said of Turpin. “Is he likely to tell a falsehood to protect himself at this trial? Was he guilty of some contradictions in his own evidence?”
Gale couldn’t find a single item in Turpin’s story that could be described as credible. Many of the details were implausible. Some defied commonsense. Predictably Gale ridiculed Turpin’s version of the opening minutes of his encounter with Nash when, according to the picture that Turpin drew, Nash balanced his police flashlight, his own gun and Turpin’s gun, the keys to the truck […]
In Gale’s further opinion, the Crown had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Turpin intended to kill Nash or to do him bodily harm that he knew was likely to cause death. Gale explained to the jurors that these were just his personal conclusions. The jurors could make up their minds for themselves. Then, rather as an afterthought, Gale offered a precis of Mackay’s case for the defence.
“It wasn’t very hard to see where things were headed,” Mackay’s assistant, Steve Posen, said years later. “The attitudes of Arthur Klein and Justice Gale were leading in the same direction, which was a conviction of capital murder.” […]
With the greatest of respect,” Mackay said, “Your Lordship has left the impression that there is nothing favourable to say about Turpin.”
“I am inclined to think that is so, Mr. Mackay,” Gale said.
I pause to note that judicial comments showing bias toward the Crown would appear to be entirely improper (note that the same thing happened in Truscott, Marshall, Lucas, etc.). It is appalling that this was (and/or is) acceptable to anyone.
Gale said Mackay had “brilliantly defended” Turpin. McRuer had said Mackay was “a credit to the profession” in his pro bono defense of Lucas (Legal Aid – as terrible as it currently is – practically didn’t exist back then). Nevertheless, Mackay was somehow “blamed” for the Lucas wrongful conviction.
Appellate counsel Walter Williston decided to make Mackay the “fall guy” for the Lucas wrongful conviction (p. 164). He was unsuccessful at both levels of appeal, although at the SCC, one justice (Cartwright) properly thought it was a wrongful conviction and provided a lone dissent. At the Ontario Court of Appeal (QuickLaw/Google – you’re welcome), “Laidlaw admitted that McRuer erred pretty significantly, all his errors being prejudicial to Lucas, but it was just too bad that these errors weren’t substantial enough to add up to a miscarriage of justice. And in perhaps the most egregious of McRuer’s errors, namely his failure to catch Bull’s false claim about the “damning evidence” of the bloody clothing, the ultimate blame lay, not with McRuer [nor Bull], but with Mackay” (p. 167).
Kerwin, for the SCC majority, found that “everybody made errors during the trial. Bull did, McRuer did, and so did Mackay. Probably, Kerwin appeared to say, Mackay’s errors were the most damning of all. Mackay should have brought Inspector McCarty’s exchanges with Lucas to the trial judge’s attention. That would have eliminated the prosecution’s claim that Lucas invented his own story of innocent behaviour at the time of the killing. It might have made a different in the jury’s decision. But it was too late for any of this, too late to introduce the McCarty material” (p. 169).
Mackay struggled with his demons moreso following these convictions and hangings. The “nightmares with the murmuring soundtrack of the Lucas and Turpin voices still assaulted him every time he lay his head down” (p. 170). Eventually, Mackay’s practice improved, although he was later disbarred for trust accounting irregularities. A few years later, he applied and was re-admitted, but his alcohol (and/or gambling) addiction eventually devolved into a cocaine addiction, and he died of cancer at 51 years old.
Mackay was wrongfully accused of ineffective assistance of counsel while the judges and Crowns were essentially let off the hook – a recurring theme, I’ve noticed.
Sophonow, Morin, Milgaard, etc.
Let’s keep going – shall we?
Eh, I’m already close to 5,000 words (8 pages single-spaced). I think I’ll stop here and aim to continue with a Part 2 in coming weeks, focusing on the following books: Manufacturing guilt: Wrongful convictions in Canada: Anderson, Barrie: 9781895686937: Books – Amazon.ca, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong: Garrett, Brandon L.: 9780674066113: Books – Amazon.ca, and Duped: Why Innocent People Confess – and Why We Believe Their Confessions: Kassin Ph.D, Saul: 9781633888081: Books – Amazon.ca.