You won't often find us commenting in this space on verdicts or court decisions resulting from criminal trials. But occasionally a case comes along that gives us the perfect opportunity to explore some facet of the law and offer public commentary. The not guilty verdict in the Mark Stobbe murder trial last week is such a case.
The two-month trial in Winnipeg of Stobbe, 54, accused of killing his wife, Beverly Rowbotham, in October 2000, which culminated in two days of jury deliberations ending in his acquittal, transfixed Manitobans and indeed people in much of the country. Rowbotham was struck 16 times in the head with a hatchet or axe in the backyard of the family's St. Andrews home. Her body was then moved to her vehicle in the garage, and then to a parking lot in Selkirk.
The Crown's case against Stobbe was entirely circumstantial with no direct eyewitness or forensic evidence linking him to the crime. Stobbe was accused of killing Rowbotham in a violent rage because of ongoing stress in their marriage, then riding a bicycle back to his home after leaving his wife's body in Selkirk to try to make her death look like a robbery.
The killings of Rowbotham, also the mother of their two young sons, transfixed us because it falls into that rare category of murder cases – a genuine high-stakes puzzle and classic whodunit – based entirely on circumstantial evidence with no direct eyewitness or forensic evidence linking him to the crime and Stobbe facing a sentence of life imprisonment if he had been convicted of second-degree murder.
Add into the story Stobbe had worked as a high-ranking communications adviser to former Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow, before moving to Manitoba to take a job with the newly elected NDP government of Gary Doer, and also that he wasn't arrested until May 2008 – almost eight years after the crime and had been free on bail for almost four years, accompanied to court some days by his now teenage sons, and testified in the witness box for six days – five of them under cross-examination by the Crown – and you have a compelling murder mystery of the first order.
The Crown in its closing address to the 12-member jury, calling for Stobbe's conviction, called Rowbotham's killing a "near-perfect murder." Perhaps. But in Canadian criminal law, much like British and American criminal law, the onus is on the Crown or the state to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
While the circumstances surrounding Rowbotham's death are indeed tragic and can make one rightly suspicious of Stobbe, there properly exists in our criminal law a presumption the accused is innocent and a grieving husband; there is no onus on him to prove anything.
In February 1766, English jurist William Blackstone published for the first time his Commentaries on the Laws of England with his now-famous dictum "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," which became known as "Blackstone's formulation" or the "Blackstone ratio."
If all this seems like namby-pamby mollycoddling to law-and-order hardliners, here are nine names to reflect upon: Donald Marshall Jr., Guy Paul Morin, David Milgaard, Thomas Sophonow, Robert Baltovich, James Driskell, William Mullins-Johnson, Erin Walsh and Steven Truscott. All nine were wrongfully convicted of murder in Canada – even with the criminal law protections of presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt in place.
In 1959, Truscott, then 14, was convicted of murdering 12-year-old Lynne Harper and sentenced in Goderich, Ont. by Justice Robert Ferguson on Sept. 30, 1959 to death by hanging after being convicted by a jury of capital murder, making him the youngest person to receive a capital sentence in Canadian judicial history.
Truscott's death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the federal cabinet under Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on Jan. 21, 1960. He served 10 years in prison until Oct. 21, 1969 – followed by almost 38 years on parole – until the Ontario Court of Appeal determined the original verdict was a miscarriage of justice and quashed his capital murder conviction on Aug. 28, 2007.
And while you're contemplating the nine names of the wrongly convicted of murder above here is a 10th name you might well be thinking about: Wilbert Coffin, from Percé at land's end on the Gaspésie Peninsula of eastern Québec. He was hanged at Bordeaux Jail in Montréal Feb. 10, 1956 for the 1953 murder near Murdochville, Que. of Altoona, Pennsylvania hunter Richard Lindsey and suspected of related killings in the murders of two other hunters at the same time.
The federal Justice Department ordered a judicial review of the Coffin case in the fall of 2006 and thanks to the advocacy of former Bloc Québécois Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine MP Raynald Blais the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion Feb. 6, 2007 calling for an investigation into the execution of Coffin. The investigation and review remains ongoing. If the case is reopened Coffin could become the first convicted murderer in Canadian history to receive a posthumous pardon.
The Mark Stobbe jury verdict is a difficult but just and proper verdict. It should be allowed to stand.