Human error can be fatal

Russell Wangersky
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Coincidences are a marvellous thing. The very morning after Prime Minister Stephen Harper — answering an interview question from the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge — says that there are cases where he would support capital punishment, evidence in a 100-year-old case, one of Britain’s most famous capital cases, is determined to be false.

You can almost hear someone chuckling somewhere.

First, to Harper: he was being asked a series of questions about where he stands on hot-button issues like abortion and capital punishment when he responded: “I personally think there are times where capital punishment is appropriate. But I’ve also committed that I’m not, you know, in the next Parliament, (there are) … no plans to bring that issue forward.”

In Harper’s defence, I would point out again clearly that he didn’t raise the topic, and he said that he had no interest in introducing the issue in the House of Commons.

Problem is, the answer opens the door just a crack for those who favour the idea of capital punishment — what better time to raise the issue than with a prime minister who sees the world, at least slightly, the way you do? The pot is stirred, whether it was Harper’s intention to mix things up or merely to answer a question as honestly and forthrightly as he could.

Now, to murder most foul and an English execution.

In 1910, Dr. Hawley Crippen was convicted and executed for the murder and dismemberment of his wife — he was arrested after his transatlantic steamer docked near Rimouski, Que., in the company of a new companion, a woman named Ethel Le Neve, who was travelling with Crippen, disguised as a teenaged boy.

The crucial evidence? A body part found in a coal cellar in the Crippen home, which had on it a scar that experts said matched a surgical scar on Cora Crippen’s abdomen.

Game, set and forensic match — after a much-ballyhooed trial, Crippen was hanged.

Now for the coincidence.


Wrong person

The morning after Prime Minister Harper’s CBC interview, there were stories across the country about a scientific study that has just been published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. New research on the evidence, done at Michigan State University, shows that in 1910, the experts were wrong.

Not only was the piece of scar tissue not from Crippen’s wife, it

wasn’t even female tissue. Whose body it was, and how it got in the cellar, is unknown. What is known is that some was hanged without enough evidence to justify the hanging.

Now, back to modern-times.

We’re somewhat unique in this country, in that we’re a small province where, in living memory, there have been three separate murder convictions overturned, convictions that resulted because of flawed police investigations.

The cases — Dalton, Parsons and Druken — don’t need to be gone through in any great detail here, except to say the convictions were egregious enough that a royal commission found flaws in each case that led to each of the men being sentenced to time in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

Those convictions have had clear and painful results for the men who were later cleared — but at least each of the three has lived to see their convictions overturned, and to receive some measure of compensation for their improper convictions.

Traditionally, capital punishment has ben reserved for the most serious of crimes in this country — murder. The problem with murders is that they tend to be the most spectacular of cases, the ones with the most public interest, and often, the ones where public sentiment has clearly decided how guilty someone is long before the jury rules. The more spectacular the case, the more emotional it is, and the greater the demand for a capital sentence, should that option be available.

Looking back at the three wrongful convictions in this province, it is not hard to conceive that a capital sentence might well have been applied to any one, or any number, of those three.

And what would we be looking at now, in any of those cases?

Tuesday’s news saw a flicker of hope for supporters of capital punishment, and a clear example of why it’s just plain wrong.

Crippen’s family is now looking, 100 years later, for a pardon for his conviction.

One can only imagine that a pardon would be cold comfort to long-cold Crippen, just like it would be cold comfort to anyone who might be convicted and hanged as a result of a mistake.

Mistakes get made. They’ve been made before, and they will be made again. Capital punishment’s just a way of making those mistakes permanent.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: CBC, House of Commons.Problem, Michigan State University

Geographic location: Britain, Rimouski

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Recent comments

  • aubrey smith
    January 25, 2011 - 17:37

    All politics aside,it's embarrassing to have a prime minister in 2011 who cracks the door slightly on capital punishment .Canada is a wonderful open country full of potential with room for all people ,and yet we have a quasi - neanderthal in control of our federal government .It is time for Ignatieff and Jack to form that partnership and put us back on a true democractic course in whcih all life is sacred and not to be disposed off as so much trash . Only the rigid puritanical mind thinks so perversely .

  • Anon
    January 22, 2011 - 12:46

    Harper will instead be privatizing our prison system and creating mandatory minimum drug charges. So if you make a dozen pot brownies you will get a mandatory minimum of 18 years in prison (9months per brownie) It's not capital punishment, but it's close. Our crime rate is about to sore... first artifically as drug charges are considered serious crimes, and then again as serious criminals can't get jobs and have to resort to crime to survive. We've seen this in the states. It doesn't work (unless your a CEO of Dynocorp or some other prison manufacturer)