Saturday, February 10, 2007

FINAL JOURNEY TO THE GALLOWS
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Upon transfer to Bordeaux Jail at Montreal, Wilbert Coffin would feel a tightening of security with respect to his incarceration. True, he soon won the respect of staff, however, security was much more regimented than in Quebec with jailer Letourneau and staff. One thing that did quickly become obvious was the fact that many of the staff at Bourdeaux, like Quebec, did not believe him to be guilty. As Montreal had been the place selected for Wilbert's execution, he would remain here until his execution date.
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To make matters worse for Wilbert Coffin, the attorney general of Quebec, none other than Maurice Duplessis, curtailed the visits of Marion Petrie, his wife. At the Quebec jail, there was a much more open policy with respect to her visits. It had now reached the point where she and Wilbert were being denied access to each other.
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In 1955 Marion would write to then Prime Minister of Canada, The Right Honourable Louis St. Laurent to intervene and free up the visitation process. The very next day, the prime minister through his secretary James Cross, responded by letter informing Marion that Bordeaux Jail was not a federal institution and thus, he had no jurisdiction to get involved. He went on to explain that she should continue her requests through the Quebec attorney general, who of course, just happened to be premier Maurice Duplessis. That was truly a brilliant suggestion, considering that was the reason why she was asking his support in the first place. It was evident Maurice Duplessis was not going to bend an inch to loosen his grip on Wilbert Coffin.
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Duplessis was steadfast in his assertion that Wilbert Coffin and Marion Petrie were not man and wife, and he would use this as a lever to deny any privileges that would normally be accorded to such a couple. At the original trial at Perce, Marion Petrie was summonsed as a hostile witness for the crown. The crown was able to pull this off chiefly because the defense had made no application to the Supreme Court prior to trial to quash this plan. Duplessis was able to carry on, basing his decisions on the earlier ruling by the trial judge that Marion Petrie was not considered a spouse by law.
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The next paragraph in this story is very important. As a matter of fact, the results of the findings in this paragraph could have been a determining factor in the outcome of an appeal of Wilbert Coffin's conviction, if the appeal had been so granted. Most folks will not be aware of the existence of this event. Sadly this event showcases the possible abandonment of lead lawyer Arthur Maloney of his client, Wilbert Coffin. I am able to present this to you as a result of exhaustive research of Supreme Court decisions that I conducted some months back.
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It would appear that lawyer Arthur Maloney made an application before the Supreme Court to have the lower court ruling declaring Marion Petrie a hostile witness, to be set aside. This would render her earlier testimony null and void. It would also prevent Marion Petrie being treated as a hostile witness in any new appeal process and being forced to testify against Wilbert Coffin. This is the point where the application to the Supreme Court ceases to make a lot of sense. I ask you to examine the below posted copy of the Supreme Court decision.
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198 EX PARTE COTE (489)
. . . Marion Petrie Coffin was not the wife of the appellant and accordingly she does not come within the exception.
Rinfret, J., at p. 369 cites Corpus Juris:
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"To constitute a marriage valid at common law, that is, in the absence of a statute otherwise specifically providing, it is not necessary that it should be solemnized in any particular form or with any particular rite or ceremony. All that is required is that there should be an actual and mutual agreement to enter into a matrimonial relation, permanent and exclusive of all others, between parties capable in law of making such a contract, consummated by their cohabitation as man and wife or other mutual assumption openly of marital duties and obligations."
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"In accordance with the rule obtaining in respect of marriages generally, the consent of the parties is essential to the consitution of the common law marriage. The absence of such consent renders the relations of the parties meretricious."
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"Mutuality. The consent of the parties to the common law mar- riage must be mutual".
He goes on to say that there was no evidence that Marion Petrie Coffin and Coffin had agreed to enter into a permanent arrangement to the exclusion of all others and therefore mutu- ality of consent was not established.
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In a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada in the Coffin case, 114 C.C.C. 1, [1956] S.C.R. 191, 23 C.R. 1, the question of whether Marion Petrie was a witness competent to testify against the accused was abandoned. See Taschereau, J., at p. 12. Cartwright, J., at p. 52 said "Before us, Mr. Maloney did not argue ground (a), on which the authorities seem to be conclusive."

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As you will note, Mr. Maloney made the application to the Supreme Court. For whatever reason he chose to present no argument, and thus, the application carried no weight. This would be viewed as a gift from above to Duplessis. In no way would he grant permission for Wilbert and Marion to marry right down to the last day, simply because if he did, and the federal cabinet decided to order a new trial at the eleventh hour, the crown would be unable to use Marion Petrie as a hostile witness. Without doubt, the walls were closing in very quickly on Wilbert.
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During the capital punishment regime across Canada, certain rules were in force which separated those prisoners facing the gallows and those who were not. Wilbert Coffin, as a condemned man fell into the classification of a prisoner facing the gallows. Approximately sixty days before an execution was scheduled to take place, the prisoner was taken from his place in the general population of the prison, and moved to an area of the prison known as death row. In this area of the facility, the prisoner would be held in a cell very close to the execution chamber, and would be aware on a daily basis of the plans being formulated for the execution.
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In many facilities across Canada, a new gallows was built each time a prisoner was to be executed. In larger centres such as Bordeaux jail, the gallows remained as a permanent facility, and would be tested on the day of a scheduled execution. In the days leading to the execution, certain rules were put into place that would allow the condemned prisoner to take care of personal business affecting the family and the last minute wishes. The jailer, in concert with the attorney general, was usually responsible for these affairs. In the case of Wilbert Coffin, anything that deviated from the norm would have to come directly from the attorney general, Maurice Duplessis himself.
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For the final month of the condemned prisoner's life, a special guard was assigned to the prisoner. This guard would look after requests, escort the prisoner to appointments within the confines, and as well, supervise visits from family etc. For the most part, this was not an easy task for the guard. It was difficult to do this job and remain an arms length away from the prisoner. Think about it. The prisoner was there and about to meet his destiny. This guard and the prisoner had to share a mutual respect. It was difficult to carry on one's duties of guarding the prisoner without getting involved in their daily lives. Such was the case of Robert Duguay.
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In doing research for the Wilbert Coffin story, Lani Mitchell and myself wanted to find out as much as we could about Wilbert Coffin's last days on earth. We wanted to know who he talked to, what he did to pass the time, who he wrote to, and most of all, discover who Wilbert Coffin really was, beyond what we already knew.
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We searched here, we searched there, we talked to this person, and we talked to that person. We still did not have what we were looking for. We simply had to find more, and were determined to do so. Very simply, there did not appear to be very much available to us. As you have seen me write it numerous times, "Don't accept anything in life at face value, Ask questions."
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Finally, a very much respected local historian came forward to us. He had at his disposal a lot of information detailing Wilbert Coffin's final weeks on earth. This information was put together by the man assigned to look after him. As I mentioned to you a short way back, it was standard procedure to assign a personal guard to each prisoner on death row. Wilbert Coffin had such a guard assigned to him for his final days. The guard was a thirty plus year veteran of the police. His name was Robert Duguay.
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As this information was made available to us very recently, it was a factor in the decision to extend the story for one extra posting. Combined with what we had already, it certainly adds a whole new dimension, and puts a very personal touch on the complete affair. There is as well another factor that influenced the decision to lengthen the story. As I have said many times, this has been a story of many twists and turns.
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As I was finalizing the story last week, I received an e-mail from Rick Willett who lives in a small northern Ontario town. Rick is a valued contributor to the comments section of my web site. Rick informed me in the e-mail that his Mom would like to talk to me, and if I would be so inclined, could we set up an appointment. Readily, I agreed, and I had the opportunity to speak at length with his Mom, Elsie Willett, a few days later. This is where it gets interesting.
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We knew of course that Wilbert Coffin had been executed at Montreal, and his body had been returned to Gaspe' for burial. Accompanying Wilbert's body to Gaspe', we knew his Mom Jesse, and his wife Marion had taken part. These two people are now deceased. The third member of that group was none other than Elsie Willett. You see, Wilbert Coffin was Elsie Willett's brother. As well, in the next and final posting, I shall be conveying to you the journey back to Gaspe', back to where it all began. This part of the story is made possible through the efforts of Elsie. I thank her so much for coming forward, and just at the proper time for inclusion into the story.
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Lew Stoddard
Posted to site February 13, 2007

16 comments:

D Duval said...

I can see now why Duplessis would deny Wilbert Coffin and Marion marriage. I did not know before about the court decision. Why would this lawyer not speak up after making an application? Seem rather stupid in my way of thinking after going through the rigors of a court challenge and then walk away.

D Duval
Quebec

Marsha K said...

I can understand why this would be a tough story to write. Very sad, very touching, and oh so real. You have a good way of putting one in the storyline Sir. You do a good job.

Marsha K
Winnipeg, manitoba

Geotgette H said...

I wonder how many more Wilbert Coffin's were hung in this manner who were not really guilty of anything? I am willing to bet there wee others.

Georgette H
Montreal

Bert Waldheim said...

Your Sir have a great website. The idea of comments and dialogue with other commenters is fantastic.

Bert Waldheim
Sackville, New Brunswick

Bob Harper said...

It is hard to believe that this case could go for fifty years and never get solved. Sheer Crap.

Bob Harper
North Bay, Ontario

Terry Lawrence said...

Good luck to all the Coffin family in all this. Mrs. Coffin I saw you on TV a few days ago and I just read your comments here on prior posting. This is important to you and I hope everyone gets behind you real good on this.

Terry Lawrence
Toronto, Ontario

Della M said...

Hard to believe the dirty triks and the scandolus things that were done to this family. They truly committed a crime when they hanged Mr. Coffin.

Della McIntyre
Saint John, N B

Trish C said...

If I did not know otherwise I would say this story is unbelievable. It i9s absolutely incredible, and Mr. Stoddard, you relate the story so well.

Trish C
Calgary, Alberta

Dave M said...

Hello Everyone,

Unfortunately this did happen and it happened in Canada. That is the troubling aspect of it all. I thought we would be beyond that but obviously we are not.

Dave M
Winnipeg

Judith K said...

Many many times over the years I have seen reference to this case. I am startled to learn of all the false stuff that has beeen written and reported about it.

You appear very thorough Sir in your coverage and in in your style of writing. You are strict but that is good. You write this story well. I am in possession of some other stuff that you have written over the years. Too bad many of the other writers would not take a lesson on style.

Judith K
CFB Gagetown

Bob said...

This case is not a miscarriage of justice, it is a very planned calculated hit on a member of the community to make something appear good.

This is not what democracy is or should be about. In a true democratic process, this could never happen.

Bob
Calgary

Therese and Richard said...

Good to see the site up and running again Lew. You have put a tremendous amount of time into this. I applaud you for this. People learn a lot from your site on this case. I do know that my husband and I have and we are formerly from the general region where this all took place.

Keep up the good work and Mrs. Marie Coffin Stewart we are pulling for you. God Bless you.

Therese and Richard
Drummondville

C Bourassa said...

Very much i like you story. my father he know a lot about it , we live in thoses day in rimouski so we hear very much.my father he with the paper companys when this happen. sorry for my english and writings.

c Bourassa in toronto

D Cummings said...

Just a note to the Coffin family. I want to join many others whom I know would want to say Best Wishes on all this, especially to Mrs. Coffin Stewart.

This must be very hard on all of you but at same time I am certain you are finding out some things that you would not have been aware of as well.

Also to Lew Stoddard, you have done a magnificent job in the delivery of these events.

D Cummings
Moncton

Sandra S said...

A quick note to Lew Stoddard and Mrs. L Baker Mitchell. I can relate to all the work that you have done on this story.

I have worked on research and translation over the years. It is a mountain of an effort.

It is sad when I see where some Dodo's try to blast you for this or that. They have no idea as to what is involved, and yet they want to reap the harvest by learning about the story. Do not let them get you down.

Sandra S
Montreal

Shorty said...

Hey Lew,

Me again out here on the prairie. Just got in from Memphis Tennessee and just got myself up to date again with your story. Taking fine shape now old boy. Keep your head pointing toward the sunshine.

Shorty the old truck driver and friend always.