About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

11th Canadian Book Challenge Half Way

For its 11th year the Canadian Book Challenge moved last July from the Book Mine blog to The Indextrious Reader blog of Melanie. I am glad she was willing to carry on the Challenge. I have read several new Canadian authors as I read at least 13 books each year of the Challenge to meet the Challenge.

With January upon us we are half way through the year in the Challenge. The Challenge each year runs from Canada Day, July 1, to June 30.

The surprise for me in this Challenge is that almost half of the Canadian books I have read are non-fiction.

The books read are:

Fiction

1.) Wishful Seeing by Janet Kellough

2.) The Winners' Circle by Gail Bowen

3.) Heart of the City by Robert Rotenberg

4.) Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Non-Fiction

5.) More Tough Crimes edited by William Trudel and Lorene Shyba

6.) The Mighty Hughes by Craig McInnes

7.) The Work of Justice by J. Pecover

Out of the fiction my favourite to date is The Winners' Circle. For long time readers of the Joanne Kilbourn series there will be a surprise in the plot of this book.

From the non-fiction I expect to long remember The Work of Justice. The book is the story of Robert Raymond Cook, the last person to be executed in Alberta. He was convicted of murdering his father, stepmother and five half-siblings. He asserted he was innocent and never wavered. He went to the gallows stating he was innocent.

As usual I have no plan for the last half of the Challenge year beyond reading books from the shortlist for Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Fiction Novel.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Fictional Porcupine Plain

Lou Sabatino, in Whipped by William Deverell, is on the run in a Canadian way.

After writing an expose on the Montreal mafia and corruption in the construction industry there is an assassination attempt that he survives in a classic Canadian escape from death. In mid-February, Sabatino, back home after some celebratory drinks, is “wheeling the big green recycle bin to the curb”:

Fortunately for the slightly tiddly ace reporter he slipped on the icy walkway, and the bin went down and so did Lou, just as a black sedan cruised by just before a burst of automatic fire went over his head and took out the snowman behind him.

In the spring, wearying of life in the witness protection plan and wanting to find his wife he takes the bus to his the home of his mother-in-law and father-in-law in northern Quebec. When she is not there he decides to go to Calgary in western Canada where her sister is resident. It is a journey of about 3,000 km. With little money he travels west hitchhiking and riding the bus.

On June 21 he runs out of money in southwest Saskatchewan at the small town of Porcupine Plain. I was startled at the name for there is a real life town of Porcupine Plain about 110 km east of Melfort.

It is ironic that the fictional town is set up in treeless hills of the southwest while the real life town is in the midst of bush and farmland in the northeast.

I was not sure if Deverell was creating a subtle joke with the placement of the fictional Porcupine Plain. Real life porcupines live in forests. Southwest Saskatchewan barely has any trees.

In the fictional Porcupine Plain Sabatino finds an unlikely inroad into the community. Finishing an all day breakfast with the last of his money at the Quill CafĂ© he overhears another customer, Oscar, lamenting issues with his laptop computer. Sabatino, proficient in building and repairing computers, offers to take a look and repairs Oscar’s wonky computer.

Other customers ask him to deal with their electronic devices. A small business is born.

Oscar offers Sabatino a bedroom in his home while Sabatino establishes himself in town.

The real life Porcupine Plain is an equally friendly community. Our law firm has a branch office there which my partner attends weekly.

The community mascot of the real life Porcupine Plain is a statue of a porcupine called Quilly Willy. A photo of the distinctive mascot is at the top of this post.

In the fictional town Sabatino earns a modest income from his computer repair expertise. He supplements his business income by creating and selling those ubiquitous lists with photos that infest the internet. Examples of his work include “TWELVE JESUS QUOTES YOUR MINISTER WILL NEVER READ” and “YOU’LL BE WIPING TEARS OF LAUGHTER AT THESE KITCHEN VIDEOS” and “EIGHT SECRETS TO A LASTING ORGASM”.

While I am not aware of any real life people devising such lists it is credible he could make a living dealing with problem computers. Much of rural Saskatchewan is a long drive from any place a computer might be repaired.

I do not know if Deverell has a connection with the real life town. He did live in Saskatchewan and go to law school here before moving to British Columbia.

As to being able to hide out in rural Saskatchewan we are a long ways from the major cities of Canada but a newcomer does stand out and the tentacles of social media stretch around the world.

I acknowledge it was nice to see Deverell write positively of life in small town Saskatchewan.
****

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Whipped by William Deverell

(43. – 930.) Whipped by William Deverell – Arthur Beauchamp is determinedly tending to his vegetables, goats, sheep and chickens on Garibaldi Island, one of the Gulf Islands, near Vancouver while his wife, Margaret Blake, with equal determination fights for environmental causes as the leader of the Green Party in Parliament in Ottawa. There could not be a greater difference in lifestyles.

Many days Arthur walks to the general store, a 7 km round trip, to pick up his mail and supplies such as netting to keep the robins off his strawberries. He enjoys conversations over a tea and muffin at the Brig, the local tavern. On his return he may savour some of the Roman poets, in Latin of course.

Margaret’s days in Ottawa are a scripted blur. She roars through meetings, addresses the myriad details of running a political party, works out policy positions with her staff, considers a coming election with the Deputy Leader and makes sure to attend sessions of Parliament.

Margot is a firebrand. There are not many in Canadian politics. While our politicians are not always as nice as the rest of us they strive for a gravitas and non-offensive speaking style that can make it hard to distinguish between them.

Margaret has no trouble speaking her mind. Words explode from her emotions. One fractious encounter with the Minister for the Environment, Emil Farquist, begins over a proposed oil pipeline to the West Coast and continues on to the effects of fracking for natural gas. The exchange, started in Parliament, extends to a media scrum in the hallway. Margaret gets off a parting shot by yelling “Frack you” at the Minister.

Back on the island a new movement has arrived. The Personal Transformation Mission Society establishes itself at Starkers Cove. Their handsome, even beautiful, guru, Jason Silverson is enticing islanders to join his devotees known as Transformers.

Back in Ottawa the Green Party is proving that it is like all other parties in digging for political dirt. Margaret meets with a journalist in Montreal, Lou Sabitino, who shows her a video of The Honourable Farquist engaged in a spirited session of BDSM with a dominatrix, Svetlana.

As Margaret ponders how to use the information she indiscreetly describes the video over an open microphone at a conference. Her words are overheard and become a viral sensation when tweeted.

The Minister immediately launches a massive lawsuit asserting defamation.

Margaret convinces Arthur, her life companion (the newest politically correct phrase for a spouse), to yet again interrupt his retirement to return to the courtroom to defend her. There will be no retreat from her dramatic description of the Minister being whipped. Her plea is that the words were the truth. It is a perilous approach to defending defamation. Should the defence not be able to prove truth in court the judgment will be far higher as there has been no apology and the integrity of the plaintiff has been further damaged by the failure to prove the defamatory words were truthful. Margaret is undaunted by the risks but the reporter and the dominatrix have disappeared.

In some books having a spouse as your lawyer would be implausible. Adding to the challenge is that Arthur has practiced criminal defence not civil litigation. Deverell makes Arthur’s representation of Margaret convincing. Arthur does not succumb to emotional excess. He keeps the process in perspective. Most important for credibility he draws on juniors in the firm with extensive experience in civil actions to assist him. Most realistically tensions arise between the lawyer and client arising from the marital relationship.

The story rollicks forward with The Transformers agitating the island folk as they promote love and peace while freely distributing a special drink, Gupa. As for Margaret she is fighting a two sided war - a fall election and the lawsuit.

An issue I had not comtemplated is raised in a newsletter published by a fictional national BDSM group. In today’s world does a practictioner of BDSM, whether whipper or whippee, suffer damage to his/her reputation by public relevation of their private pastime? You can only get a large judgment in defamation by showing actual damage to your reputation. Certainly political pretension is skewered in the book.

Tension rises through the winter. Svetlana has left Canada and a private investigator cannot find Lou. Readers learn Lou has found refuge in a rural Saskatchewan town with a real name. (I will discuss his experiences and the town in my next post.)

Deverell proves that civil litigation, here defamation, can be as interesting as a criminal case for a legal mystey. It may be that authors are grasping the possibilities of fictional civil cases. My favourite fiction of 2017 was Last Days of Night in which Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were battling in court over alleged patent infringement concerning the light bulb.

And, as always, Deverell is witty throughout the book.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Law Students and Integrity

The law students of The Rooster Bar by John Grisham made me feel uncomfortable. Having known and worked with recently graduated Canadian law students for decades, including both my sons, I was disturbed by the willingness of Mark, Todd and Zola to drop out of law school and be fake lawyers. There was a fundamental lack of integrity to their actions.

I appreciate the financial disaster facing them. Collectively they would owe $600,000 in student loans by the time they were to graduate from Foggy Bottom Law School.

At the same time they were willfully blind to the consequences when they went into law school. Every law student I know has assessed the risks and costs against the actual opportunities provided a law degree. It has long been known, especially in the United States, there are no guarantees of a well paid secure position after graduation.

Lawyer jokes to the contrary I consider integrity at the heart of the practice of law.

I was a member of the Law Society Committee that organized the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Law Society of Saskatchewan in 2007. As part of that celebration we thought about a word to represent our profession in Saskatchewan and chose “integrity”.

The students of my experience are much more like the law students in One L by Scott Turow than the students at Foggy Bottom.

I cannot see any of the law students I have known showing the lack of integrity of Mark, Todd and Zola.

On reflection I realized the students of Foggy Bottom are in a completely different system from the students I know.

The students at Foggy Bottom were ill prepared for law school and only realize after admission that the institution is focused on the $45,000 each pays in annual tuition. Professors know their task is to get them graduated. It is almost impossible to fail. Since no one cares about academic performance the students drift through law school and 50% will fail the bar exam.

The students I know excelled in university before they reached law school. They had to show they were superior students with quality LSAT scores. They were motivated to work hard at law school. Their professors challenged them. Their years in law school are illustrated by the reviews of One L written by my son, Michael, and myself that considered our real life experiences in law school in the 1970’s and the 2010’s.

America is often a land of excess. So it has become with law schools, especially for profit law schools, churning out grads unready to be lawyers.

The American Bar Association stated there were 37,400 students commencing law school in 2017. In Canada, with 1/10th of the population of America, there were approximately 2,500 students in first year law school.

Maybe readers should be glad Mark, Todd and Zola quit law school.
****
Grisham, John – (2000) - The Brethren; (2001) - A Painted House; (2002) - The Summons; (2003) - The King of Torts; (2004) - The Last Juror; (2005) - The Runaway Jury; (2005) - The Broker; (2008) - The Appeal; (2009) - The Associate; (2011) - The Confession; (2011) - The Litigators; (2012) - "G" is for John Grisham - Part I and Part II; (2013) - The Racketeer; (2013) - Grisham's Lawyers; (2013) - Analyzing Grisham's Lawyers; (2013) - Sycamore Row; (2014) - Gray Mountain and Gray Mountain and Real Life Legal Aid; (2015) - Rogue Lawyer and Sebastian Rudd; (2016) - The Whistler; (2017) - Camino Island; (2017) - The Rooster Bar; Probably hardcover

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham

(42. – 929.) The Rooster Bar by John Grisham – Gordon, Mark, Todd and Zola face disaster. They are third year law students at the little known for profit law school of Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C. with no prospects but a crushing debt load. Between them they owe almost $800,000 in student loans.

They had been lured to Foggy Bottom, a law school with a dismal record of graduates passing the bar exam, by a glossy website and heavy promotion that graduates had strong prospects of high paying jobs. Grades and LSAT scores were immaterial for entry to Foggy Bottom. Easy loans from the federal government financed students at the law school.

The reality they face is a job market that has no interest in graduates from schools like Foggy Bottom. There is on over supply of law graduates from better law schools.

Upon graduation they know they will be hounded to pay back their student loans.

Gordon, bi-polar, and off his meds goes through a manic phase ultimately determining a New York lawyer and businessman has been making millions off of his ownership of their law school and other for profit law schools. He is also the largest shareholder in Swift Bank, a huge bank with customer problems of the same nature being endured by the real life Wells Fargo Bank.

Ultimately Gordy crashes and commits suicide.

The surviving trio, filled with guilt and deeply depressed, see no future in completing law school. Lacking any skills except for the minimal legal knowledge they gained in law school they decide to become fake lawyers.

They will count upon crowded courts and busy lawyers not demanding their credentials as they practice law. That they lack the knowledge to actually know how to practice law does not trouble them. They will fake it.

Not surprisingly they choose criminal law and personal injury law. In each area they can pursue clients who have little education and are desperate to have a lawyer represent them.

They pay for fake identities and go into business. Their office address is The Rooster Bar where Todd has worked part-time as a bartender.

Grisham creates a credible narrative of what happens as they venture into the illicit practice of law. As in most occupations a little knowledge is dangerous. While understanding some of the risks the trio is unaware of many of the perils facing them.

I wondered for awhile if Grisham had lost touch with legal reality as the trio appeared to be succeeding as fake lawyers but their lies and inexperience caught up with them.

There is an intriguing subplot involving Zola’s family who, after 26 years as illegal immigrants to the U.S., are about to be returned to Senegal. Born in America Zola has American citizenship and is exempt from the deportation.

The ultimate scheme concoted by the trio is clever and leads to a thriller ending I could appreciate as not far fetched.

The heroes are less pure than in most thrillers. I wish the bad guys could have been equally nuanced.

The pages flow by as swiftly as usual and I enjoyed the book but it is time for Grisham to head back to the South, preferably Mississippi. Four books have gone by since Sycamore Row. He has produced good books with interesting, even great lawyers as characters, but it has been long enough since he wrote a great book. I took a look around the net but could not determine if his next legal mystery would return to the South. 

There has also been more than enough preaching in recent books especially Gray Mountain (railing against coal mining in West Virginia), Rogue Lawyer (injustices in the American criminal justice system) and The Rooster Bar (American for profit law schools and student loans).
****
Grisham, John – (2000) - The Brethren; (2001) - A Painted House; (2002) - The Summons; (2003) - The King of Torts; (2004) - The Last Juror; (2005) - The Runaway Jury; (2005) - The Broker; (2008) - The Appeal; (2009) - The Associate; (2011) - The Confession; (2011) - The Litigators; (2012) - "G" is for John Grisham - Part I and Part II; (2013) - The Racketeer; (2013) - Grisham's Lawyers; (2013) - Analyzing Grisham's Lawyers; (2013) - Sycamore Row; (2014) - Gray Mountain and Gray Mountain and Real Life Legal Aid; (2015) - Rogue Lawyer and Sebastian Rudd; (2016) - The Whistler; (2017) - Camino Island; Probably hardcover

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Bill's Best of 2017 - Non-Fiction and Most Interesting

In my previous post I provided a list of Bill’s Best of 2017 Fiction. I turn now to my favourites in Non-Fiction and Most Interesting for 2017.

The Best of Non-Fiction were:

1.) Idea of Canada – Letters to a Nation by David Johnston – Our Governor General at the time of publication David has a practice of writing, by hand, a few letters each morning to living and deceased Canadians. This book contains a collection of those letters and is a celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.

They range over many topics. Some that interested me were Canadian history, law students and fighting in hockey.

I read this book as it was written reading a few letters each day over three weeks.

I admit a bias with regard to this book. I sent my review as a letter to David and he responded with a handwritten letter. He was as forthright and direct in his reply as in the letters in his book;

2.) America on Trial by Alan Dershowitz – The author, a famed Harvard professor and active lawyer and currently prominent as a T.V. commentator, has made an arbitrary selection of famous American trials which reflect the American legal system going back prior to 1776.

The trials were not necessarily the most important but they all dealt with important legal principles or historical events.

An example was the Savannah trial from the American Civil War. A confederate raider was captured at sea and the crew tried for piracy. A hung jury saved President Lincoln from having to determine whether they were pirates or prisoners of war. It reminded me of the current American dilemma within its War on Terrorism on whether captured fighters are “enemy combatants” or prisoners of war.

Six months ago I wondered in my reviews of the book if Dershowitz was President Trump’s “God Forbid” lawyer against charges of obstruction of justice. The President may yet need Dershowitz.

3.) The Mighty Hughes by Craig McInnes – The story of a remarkable Canadian, Edward “Ted” Hughes who grew up in Saskatchewan and became a lawyer and a judge here. After moving to British Columbia in his early 50’s he became justly famed as the man to investigate allegations of conflicts of interest and conduct public inquiries on behalf of provincial governments. He became known as the moral compass of Western Canada. In his 80’s he led the process of compensation for former students at Canadian Indian Residential Schools. Now 90 he remains committed to public service.

Most interesting covers titles that are not the Best in fiction or non-fiction but books I found unique:

1.) Elementary, She Read by Vicki Delany – The prolific Canadian writer began a new series set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts with the indominable Gemma Doyle, a distant relative of Arthur Conan Doyle, who is tall and lanky and brilliant.

She knows, like Sherlock, some find her irritating but she does not care:

                        …. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that some people
don’t understand my attention to detail and thus misunderstand
           the conclusions I draw from it. I have tried to stop, but I might
as well stop thinking.

At the heart of the mystery is a copy of the Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. That Annual contained the first Sherlock Holmes story.

Elementary, She Read is a fine addition to contemporary Sherlockian books.

2.) Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding – Lieutenant Hanns Alexander was an obscure British Army officer in World War II. Rudolf Hoess was infamous as the Commandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

At the end of the war Alexander, with little help, set out to find Hoess in northern Germany.

There is significant irony that Alexander, a German Jewish refugee, was hunting down one of the worst mass murderers in world history.

What left me reflective were the paths chosen by two ordinary men. Alexander served honorably in the British Army. Hoess was a willing killer of men, women and children.

3.) Final Appeal – Anatomy of a Frame by Colin Thatcher – The book is the author’s attempt to convince the world he was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife, Joanne Wilson. The subtitle reflects his belief the Regina police and Crown prosecutors set out to frame him. It is an interesting book filled with details and considerable speculation. I primarily read it to learn the reasons for the legal strategies used in his trial. In particular, I wanted to know who made the decision to have him testify for his appearance on the witness stand probably convicted him. As I expected he made the decision to testify against the advice of his lawyer. 

The book inspired the Government of Saskatchewan to pass a law that a convicted criminal cannot profit from writing a book about his/her crime. What challenged me most about the application of the law is the monies payable to Thatcher that were received from the publisher were not paid to the children who had resolutely supported their father’s defence. They went to a pair of victim funds.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Bill’s Best of 2017 Fiction

I may be the last blogger to publish Best of 2017 lists. I continue my tradition of waiting until the end of the calendar year before compiling my lists. Partly I follow this practice because I do not see how you have a “best” of the year before the year is over though I see major media outlets starting their lists in November. I have wondered if their lists just ignore reading for the rest of the year or are their lists now November to November lists. Another reason for me waiting until the end of the year is that my list includes books not published in 2017. My “Best of” lists are from my reading during the year.

I read 43 books this year which was less than usual. This post will cover Fiction. My next post will be on Non-Fiction and my personal category of Most Interesting.

Bill’s Best of 2013 Fiction choices are:

1.) Last Days of Night by Graham Moore – A perfect book for me that also became a bestseller. The combination of a skilled and determined lawyer in the midst of great legal conflicts defining changes to the world with real life historic characters was irresistible.

In the book Paul Cravath, a young New York lawyer, is chosen by George Westinghouse in the 1880’s to defend 312 lawsuits launched across America by Thomas Edison alleging patent infringement with regard to the light bulb. The lawsuits seek damages of $1,000,000,000, a staggering sum even today.

With regard to those lawsuits I said in my review:

Through the legal fray there is skullduggery, treachery, a touch of violence and amazing minds conjuring the future.

As well there is a beautiful young singer, Ms. Agnes Huntingdon, with a mysterious past.

Still, proving more often not I am not in tune with the judges of Awards, Last Days of Night did not win the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. In my last words on that subject neither of the other books on the shortlist – Gone Again and Small Great Things - while good books are on my Best of 2017 Fiction list.

2.) The Winners’ Circle by Gail Bowen –One of the reasons I love the Joanne Kilbourn series is the continuing development of characters. In the 17th book of the series the three teenage daughters of legal partners in Zack Shreeve’s firm have a major role. They assert themselves in a gathering of the families as they as stated in my review:

…. call upon their parents and spouses to commit to exploring together their enduring griefs a few weeks later on October 31 in the way of the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). Having learned that day “celebrates the lives of the dead by the living reminiscing and sharing some of the things that have brought their loved ones joy when they were alive” one of the girls, Isobel, says:

“That’s when we knew that the Day of the Dead offered something our families needed. We’ve all lost people we loved or people we wish we’d had the chance to love. Gracie and Taylor’s mothers both died. The sister who I never knew existed until three years ago died before I had the chance to meet her.”

It is a rare mystery that gives teenagers such importance.

Later in the book Gail shook me up with dramatic violence concerning several major characters that has left me wondering about will happen next in the series. I am eager to read the next book.

Gail is diligently writing this winter despite a vicious cold snap that has left our province enduring temperatures where the daytime high is -25C. She said in a comment on Facebook a week ago:

Our house is warm, but my office is not, so I’m writing wrapped in an electric blanket with a space heater – very safely placed and never on unless I’m in the room – and a heated wheat bag. All this would be commendable if I were writing something that will change the world, but it’s just another Joanne book.

(Gail added that the next book in the series is done and she is working on the book after the next book.)

3.) The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrisey – The Now family lives in outport Newfoundland still laboring through the grief of the death of son/brother, Chris, in the oilfields of distant Alberta. I described the family:

Father, Sylvanus, drunk every day refuses to even mention Chris’s name. Sister, Sylvie, is in Africa trying to safari away from her sorrow. Brother, Kyle, constantly chews his fingers. Mother, Addie, amidst her own sadness strives to instill hope but the Now’s remain a family lost in pain.

As they struggle along Clar, a wife abuser and general lout, is killed. Suspicion falls upon all the members of the Morrisey family.

Morrisey creates a vivid family story amidst a strong mystery. Even more impressive The Fortunate Brother is her first foray into crime fiction.

The Fortunate Brother was a worthy winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Crime Fiction mystery from the shortlist. I regret that I have not yet made my way through the full shortlist. There will be a post another day. Of the Canadian mysteries I read over the past year I did not think the shortlist contained the five best Canadian mysteries.

3.) Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart – Joining The Fortunate Brother at tied for 3rd is this wonderful novel of 18th Century China.

The Emperor of China is coming to southwest China as Commander of the Heavens to preside over an eclipse of the sun.

Shortly before his arrival an elderly Jesuit is murdered at the residence of the local magistrate. Wandering scholar Li Du, a former Imperial Librarian banished from Beijing, cannot abide a coverup and manipulates his cousin, the magistrate, into authorizing him to investigate the murder.

Hart take us deep in to the China of that era wrestling with the efforts of the Western World to have access. I felt transported back to 1708 as I read the story.

Hart accomplishes a wonder in Jade Dragon Mountain. She creates a complex plot which is unpredictable without resorting to credibility defying twists. The ending was a genuine surprise.

My next post will discuss my Best of 2017 Non-Fiction and Most Interesting of 2017.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Robert Raymond Cook Facing Execution

In my last trio of posts I have been discussing The Work of Justice by J. Pecover which deals with the conviction of Robert Raymond Cook for murder in Alberta. I have outlined the case, discussed the evidence and assessed the question of whether there was a wrongful conviction. In this post I will be discussing my reaction to the book and Cook’s execution.

The book is not structured how I wand to read the story of a real life criminal case. There is a foreward and an introduction that I avoided reading as I could tell had more information than I want before reading the complete book. The opening two chapters then summarized the events. The rest of the book fleshed out what happened and provided analysis. I would have preferred a narrative that was chronological either ending with the trial and appeals or going through the trial and providing back story as the evidence of witnesses was recounted.

The section of the book I found best written and most moving dealt with the appeals, the review with regard to commutation and the execution.

Despite the issues noted I was glad I read the book. I appreciated the scrupulous effort of Pecover to get the facts right and probe the evidence and the actions of the lawyers. The book also caused me to reflect on capital punishment, especially in Canada. It has been 55 years since there was an execution in Canada.

While the book did not convince me there had been a miscarriage of justice in convicting Cook I do not believe he should have been executed. I acknowledge I am biased in this area as I oppose the death penalty. At the time of Cook’s conviction in 1960 I would have been considered an abolitionist seeking the end of capital punishment.

There were numerous legal issues with regard to the conduct of Cook’s first trial. It appeared to me that the Alberta Court of Appeal chose but one of the grounds (the trial judge refused the defence’s application to recall a witness) available for overturning the conviction when they ordered a new trial.

If anything there were more issues with the second trial. It was unbelievable that the trial judge summed up the facts and law in a charge of half an hour to the jury. It was impossible for the judge to properly set out the law and the defences. He spent but a minute on the alibi defence.

Unfortunately the Court of Appeal was not willing to see a third trial take place. While criticizing the trial judge, especially with regard to his charge on the defence of alibi, they found the charges as a whole adequate and resorted to the section of the Criminal Code that allows a conviction to stand on appeal notwithstanding errors because “there was no substantial wrong or miscarriage of justice”. By invoking that clause they believed he was guilty.

Early in my career as a lawyer I argued an appeal in which the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal used the same clause to dismiss an appeal. It stung then and stings now. I consider that clause one of the worst sections in our Criminal Code.

The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the appeal without even giving reasons.

At that point Cook sought a commutation.

It was remarkable reading the book how many people in the provincial and federal correctional services found it difficult to believe Cook could have committed mass murder and supported commutation.

Through the book Cook’s personality is of a likeable non-violent boy and man. What could have motivated him to commit mass murder is unknown. Pyschiatric examination did not indicate mental health issues. All I can say is that I have known people to do terrible things to family members because of emotional family issues that overwhelmed them.

Pecover also sets out how many in Alberta, despite the the murder of the family, did not want execution.

The civil servants who reviewed the case recommended a commutation.

Though he had little formal education Cook wrote an eloquent letter in support of his commutation. In his letter (his spelling) he said:

My appeal Sir is not one of mercy for a crime but for time wich will reveal beyond doubt innocence. I respectfully put it Sir, that when the facts replace the unaswerd questions and inference the err of this confiction will be proved.

It was a powerful misspelling that sets out the heart of his position when he wrote “confiction” instead of “conviction”.

The federal Cabinet made commutation decisions. The Prime Minister of the time, John Diefenbaker, was from Saskatchewan. A former defence counsel he was an avowed abolitionist. (In my review of Diefenbaker for the Defence by Garrett Wilson I set out a case where he had recommended a client pursue an acquittal rather than seek a conviction for manslaughter. His client was convicted of murder and hung.)

Prior to Cook’s application the Cabinet, essentially Diefenbaker, had commuted 26 of 32 convictions for capital murder but there was no commutation for Cook.

Cook had the misfortune of making his application shortly after a murderer from Calgary who had raped and killed a 10 year old in a church had his sentence commuted because he was clearly insane. There was intense public anger over the commutation. Despite protestations to the contrary it is hard not to think the earlier commutation had an impact on Cook’s application.

The substantial number of commutations for capital murder convictions by the Federal Cabinet of that time does illustrate the arbitrariness of the death penalty. Men and women found guilty of capital murder were hung or spared by politicians deciding whether to extend or withhold mercy.

Cook went to his death with dignity and courage. There is a moving statement by one of the two Lutheran pastors who spent the final four hours before the midnight hanging with Cook .

At the execution, moments before the hood was placed over his head, he said “Father, forgive them”. Cook was reciting the Lord’s Prayer with the pastors when the trap was sprung.
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