Did Justice Fail Wilbert Coffin?
February 10th, 1956 was a cold night, as you’d expect, in Montreal. The black flag of death had been raised above Bordeaux Prison and a bell was tolled seven times. The grim ritual announced the hanging of Wilbert Coffin, 43, at 12.01 a.m.
Hunting in the Gaspé
The unspoiled wilderness of the Gaspé region of Québec is a magnet for hunters. There’s partridge, ducks, geese, and rabbits, but it’s bigger game most are after – moose, white-tailed deer, and bears.
This is what attracted Eugene Lindsey from Altoona, Pennsylvania. In June 1953, he travelled to Gaspé with his 17-year-old son Richard and 20-year-old Frederick Claar filled with anticipation about bagging a bear. It was a high-school graduation present for Richard.
They went into the forest and were never seen alive again. A month later, what was left of them was found. The bears had mauled Eugene’s body. The two younger men's bodies were found four kilometres away, also mauled by bears.
They had not been killed by the bears; they had been murdered. Evidence of bullet holes was found in their clothing.
Wilbert Coffin Arrested
Police quickly determined that the last person known to have seen the three Americans alive was Wilbert Coffin. He had bumped into them in the forest when their truck had broken down and had driven them to a gas station to get a replacement pump.
He was a local prospector and woodsman and someone hunter’s sought out to guide them to where they might find bears.
When his house was searched he was found to be in possession of some of the dead men’s luggage. Coffin admitted he had stolen the items but denied he had shot them.
He was arrested and interrogated for 16 days. He never wavered from his claims of innocence in the case of the killings. No matter, he was charged with first-degree murder.
The government of Québec wanted a quick resolution of the case. Hunting in the Gaspé was a lucrative business, attracting many Americans. Having hunters turn up dead was bad for the trade.
Raymond Maher was a Québec City lawyer and a strong supporter of the government of Premier Maurice Duplessis. He was put forward to defend Wilbert Coffin. The accused man could hardly have had worse counsel.
The prosecution relied almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. There were no eye witnesses and no physical evidence such as a murder weapon. The stolen possessions were a problem for Coffin but his lawyer never offered a plausible explanation about how he came to acquire them. In fact, Maher was drunk for most of the trial and did a poor job of cross-examining witnesses.
Raymond Maher told the court he was going to call 100 witnesses to testify on behalf of Coffin. However, when the Crown finished its evidence, Maher stood up and said “the defence rests.” He did not present a single piece of evidence to help his client. The accused man was not even given a chance to speak in his own defence.
After half an hour of deliberation, the verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree was announced by the jury foreman. The mandatory sentence was death by hanging.
Appeals galore all failed and Wilbert Coffin kept his appointment with Canada’s hangman.
Did Justice Fail?
Almost immediately, it was alleged that Wilbert Coffin was railroaded. As Injustice Busters puts it, he was “… a serendipitous fall guy for the Québec government [was] sacrificed to protect the image of the region.”
Journalist Jacques Hébert, (later to become a Canadian Senator) called the trial the worst miscarriage of justice in Québec’s history. He published a book J’accuse les assassins de Coffin (I Accuse Coffin’s Murderers) in 1964 in which he laid out his belief that Wilbert Coffin was an innocent man sent to the gallows.
The book created such a stir that a royal commission was set up to look into the affair. The commission’s conclusion was that Wilbert Coffin received a fair trial and just punishment.
But, his family and legal activists have not given up the campaign to clear his name.
Elisabeth Widner is co-president for the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted. She is taking a personal interest in the case and told Radio-Gaspésie “The theory of the Crown that Wilbert Coffin did this on his own, alone in the woods, without a vehicle, doesn’t hold.”
She says there were some other witnesses who were not called to testify at the trial. These people reported seeing some other Americans driving a Jeep in the area where the three hunters were killed.
American lawyer Michael Rooney (originally from Gaspé) is working on the theory that the men in the Jeep were also from Pennsylvania and that there were some illegal financial dealings involved.
The involvement of political shenanigans is another theory. Maurice Duplessis, Québec’s premier at the time, was no stranger to controversy. He was frequently referred to as le grande noirceur (the great darkness) who used patronage, violence against unions, and ruthless suppression to hold onto power.
He wanted a swift guilty verdict to protect the valuable American hunter business. The accusation is that he manoeuvred to get an incompetent lawyer to “defend” Coffin and might have put his thumb on the scale during the appeal process.
The American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, became involved in the case. The political pressure for a verdict against Coffin can be detected in prosecutor Noel Dorion’s final address to the jury: “I have faith that you will set an example for your district, for your province and for the whole of your country before the eyes of America, which counts on you, and which has followed all of the details of this trial.”
Wilbert Coffin’s family believes the judicial process was a perverted charade. Judith Reeder is Wilbert Coffin’s niece. In 2016 she told The Canadian Press the family’s wish is her uncle with be exonerated: “The hope has always been there and we’re still hoping and praying something will be done and his name will be cleared,”
The death penalty was abolished in Canada in 1976. Its reinstatement was debated and rejected by Parliament in 1987.
Innocence Canada is an organization that works on behalf of convicts it believes are innocent of the crimes for which they are incarcerated. As of 2015 it had 94 cases under review, of which 16 have been adopted for legal work because the group is certain the subjects are innocent.
As his execution approached, Wilbert Coffin asked for permission to marry his common-law partner and mother of his son, Marion Petrie. Permission was denied and Maurice Duplessis said it would not be “decent.”
At least two people have confessed to murdering the Pennsylvanian hunters; one later recanted and the other was considered a hoax.
- “Wilbert Coffin – Wrongfully Executed?” Mysteries of Canada, undated.
- “The Wilbert Coffin Case.” Human Rights in Canada, undated.
- “Efforts Continue to Exonerate Wilbert Coffin 60 Years After His Execution.” The Canadian Press, February 10, 2016.
- “Wilbert Coffin: Rough Justice in Gaspé Québec.” Injustice Busters, February 10, 2015