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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, December 31, 2017

Considering Causes of Wrongful Conviction and Robert Raymond Cook

In two previous posts I have been discussing The Work of Justice by J. Pecover concerning the conviction and execution of Robert Raymond Cook for murdering his family in 1959 in Alberta. Pecover believes there was a miscarriage of justice. In this post I will examine the conviction from another perspective.

In Canada and the U.S. there have been a signficant number of cases of wrongful conviction in the past couple of decades. In Canada several cases of wrongful conviction for murder have brought about public inquiries. Innocence Canada (formerly the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted or AIDWYC) is dedicated to the cause of the wrongfully convicted.

At its website they list the leading causes of wrongful convictions:

            1.) Eyewitness identification error;
            2.) Jailhouse informant testimony;
            3.) False confessions;
            4.) Tunnel vision;
            5.) Systemic discrimination;
            6.) Evolution of and errors in forensic science; and,
            7.) Professional misconduct.

To provide a different examination on Cook’s conviction I have analyzed the case by considering these causes:

1.) Eyewitness identification error – There was no eyewitness identification of Cook as the killer. The evidence of the Crown was circumstantial. At the same time the jury  considered Cook’s evidence asserting innocence and that he had an alibi. They also had the evidence of Albert Wilson supporting the alibi though his testimony was crushed on cross examination;

2.) Jailhouse informant testimony – There was no jailhouse informant. The Crown did not plant a police officer with Cook. No fellow prisoner claimed Cook had confessed to the murders;
3.) False confessions – In some cases of wrongful conviction the accused has been aggressively questioned by the police and eventually confesses to a crime he/she has not committed. Cook never confessed. In the hours before his execution he insisted he was innocent;
       4.) Tunnel vision – At Innocence Canada tunnel vision is   
       defined as:

Tunnel vision is a significant problem under the umbrella of professional misconduct. In the Morin Inquiry tunnel vision was defined as “…a single-minded and overly narrow focus on a particular investigative or prosecutorial theory, so as to unreasonably colour the evaluation of information received and one’s conduct in response to the information.” In some cases, police and prosecutors seek to find evidence that fits their theory as opposed to developing a theory on the basis of existing evidence.
In Cook’s case the Crown completely focused on Cook. The problem for Cook’s defence is that there was never a credible alternative suspect.

Innocence Canada provided an example of tunnel vision:

Tunnel vision played a significant role in Thomas Sophonow’s wrongful conviction. In that case the police were in contact with the actual killer, however, they were so focused on Sophonow that they lost sight of any potential alternative suspects.

Cook’s defence counsel spoke of a mysterious stranger who could have been a prison mate of Cook released at the same time but the only possibility was a man who was in Edmonton at the time of the murders but there was no evidence he was ever in Stettler or had reason to kill 2 adults and 5 children.

            5.) Systemic discrimination – Innocence Canada states:

Research has shown that race and gender play a significant role in wrongful convictions. The New York Innocence Project reports that more than 70% of those exonerated by DNA evidence were racialized persons. As a point of comparison, over 70% of the American population are of Caucasian descent. It is clear that racial minorities are at a higher risk of being wrongly convicted.

Since Cook was white and male the issues of race and gender considered for discrimination would not have a role.

While he did not come from a wealthy background his family was an average working family.

6.) Evolution of and errors in forensic science – In Cook’s case little forensic evidence really aided the Crown or the defence. There was no further identification of the blood stains on his suit beyond they were blood stains.

What was of some significance is that they did not find any trace of blood upon him including under his fingernails. Whoever committed the murders had moved bloody bodies and sought to clean the house.

There were some unidentified fingerprints in the house.

What was not available in 1960 was DNA evidence. DNA analysis has often been at the core of proving wrongful conviction. Had there been DNA evidence of a mysterious stranger it could have helped Cook but if there was no DNA of a mysterious stranger the Crown case would have strengthened.

7.) Professional misconduct – Cook was tried in an era when there was no mandatory disclosure of the Crown case. Still in his case the Crown provided its evidence. Some of that evidence was contradictory. Parts of the investigation appear to have been poorly done but there was not a plan to keep evidence from Cook.

The Innocence Project provided examples of withholding evidence in a pair of wrongful convictions:

Research has shown that race and gender play a significant role in wrongful convictions. The New York Innocence Project reports that more than 70% of those exonerated by DNA evidence were racialized persons. As a point of comparison, over 70% of the American population are of Caucasian descent. It is clear that racial minorities are at a higher risk of being wrongly convicted.

Pecover points to examples of what he considered the prosecutor acting improperly in the trials but I did not see professional misconduct.

The importance of the above factors was highlighted in an article Judging Innocence by Brandon Garrett in the Columbia Law Review in 2008. He analyzed the first 200 American cases where DNA evidence proved wrongful convictions.

He examined the evidence which had produced the convictions:

A few predictable types of unreliable or false evidence supported these convictions. The vast majority of the exonerees (79%) were convicted based on eyewitness testimony; we now know that all of these eyewitnesses were incorrect. Fifty-seven percent were convicted based on forensic evidence, chiefly serological analysis and microscopic hair comparison.18 Eighteen percent were convicted based on informant testimony and 16% of exonerees falsely confessed.

For careful readers the percentages do total more than 100%. Most wrongfully convicted, as in most trials, had more than one form of evidence led agains them.

In considering the 7 primary causes of wrongful conviction with regard to the Cook case I do not see them showing a wrongful conviction of Cook.

My fourth post will add some thoughts on the book and discuss the end for Cook.


  1. What an interesting and carefully-thought-out-post, Bill. You make a very potent argument that this is unlikely to be a case of wrongful conviction. Certainly, DNA evidence could corroborate or refute the evidence against Cook, but it doesn't sound as though this was a flimsy Crown case, at least not to me. I'll be interested in your next post.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. The case is different from many that would use DNA testing as Cook was present in the house. You would also expect unknown DNA in any home because of visitors. The challenge for the defence would have been to trying to convince the jury that unknown DNA meant there was a mysterious stranger committing murder.