Pleading innocence, 50 years later
Wilbert Coffin's family is hoping a review of his murder conviction will clear his name
Nov. 27, 2006. 05:35 AM
LEGAL AFFAIRS REPORTER
Jim Coffin can barely picture his father's face, but a conversation or song about the man who disappeared from his life 50 years ago moves him to tears.
When Coffin was 11, his mother explained that his father, Wilbert, a Quebec woodsman who divided his time between Gaspé and Montreal, had been executed for the murders of three American hunters.
Like the rest of his family, Coffin spent the next half-century coping largely in silence.
"We always had so much fun at home. It was a house full of laughter. That laughter and fun ended," said Marie Coffin Stewart, 75, who joined her nephew in Toronto on the weekend to talk about the case — widely seen as a wrongful conviction engineered by the government of then Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis.
"I've often wondered what went through my brother's mind when they came and took him out of his cell to take that last walk to be hanged," she said. "You can't imagine what it's been like to live with this all these years. It's like a black, black hole that never ends."
In some ways, the loss of simple things has been the hardest.
"The thing that bugs me is there was no going fishing. There was no playing baseball. That whole existence with a father was gone," said Coffin, 59, a flooring installer and father of three who lives in Gibsons, B.C.
His mother, Marion Petrie, remained single. "My mother loved him so much she never allowed another man into her life."
Stewart, who still lives in Gaspé, and Coffin were in Toronto for the annual meeting of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, which has taken up the battle for Wilbert Coffin's exoneration, a battle that gained momentum this year. In September, the federal justice department's Criminal Conviction Review Group began poring over trial records to determine if there are grounds for setting aside Coffin's conviction or referring the case to an appeal court for review. The review is expected to last about another year.
It's believed to be the first time the government has considered reopening a murder case posthumously.
Many believe Wilbert Coffin was a scapegoat for a province determined to make a quick arrest and salvage its lucrative American tourist trade.
Duplessis hand-picked the prosecutor and lead detective, who interrogated Coffin in vain for 16 days.
Stewart said her gentle, fun-loving brother was incapable of murder. "He was a person who couldn't stand to see even a little rabbit caged up."
After his arrest, the family tried to scrape together enough money for a defence. "My sister and I went all over the town of Gaspé begging for money. We were just hoping for a loan. No luck."
Raymond Maher, a Quebec City lawyer and Duplessis supporter, showed up in Gaspé and volunteered for the job. Described in one book as drunk for much of the trial, Maher barely cross-examined any witnesses, said Elisabeth Widner, the association's co-president.
Even worse, he didn't call Coffin to testify.
Coffin had "a problem" because items belonging to the hunters were in his possession, Widner said.
Questioned before trial, Coffin said he met the trio on June 10, 1953, while driving into the bush to prospect. Their truck had broken down, so he drove them into town for a new fuel pump and back to the camp, promising to check in on them in a few days, he said.
Coffin said one of the hunters, Eugene Lindsey, paid him $40 in U.S. bills for his trouble and Lindsey's son, Richard, gave him a pocket knife.
When he checked back later, the camp was deserted except for the truck, Coffin said, adding he waited several hours and took the old fuel pump and some clothes from the truck before leaving. He said he was drunk at the time.
In his closing jury address, the prosecutor said the "eyes of America" were on the trial and counting on a conviction.
"You can't underestimate the role politics played in this case," Widner said.
Jim Coffin said his father "was guilty of only being a good Samaritan."
"He hung for helping a man. And I don't think that's right."
The younger Coffin, who was 8 when his father was hanged on Feb. 10, 1956, said his mother sheltered him from news reports about the execution. Once she finally told him the truth, "it was never mentioned around the house for quite a few years. It was very painful."
She later moved to northern Quebec, where his father's family gave her some land, and Jim Coffin built her a house. She visited Gaspé from time to time, but it became tough. "I think emotionally it was too hard."
Jim Coffin, meanwhile, was transferred from city to city with his job and eventually lost touch with the rest of the family. They reunited last summer.
Stewart has knit a blanket, which she plans to raffle off on Dec. 9 to offset legal expenses. She's sold more than 4,000 tickets, at $1 each.
"I've asked myself so many times what we could have done differently to have helped out my brother."
Meanwhile, the justice department is investigating a new tip. This month, The Gazette in Montreal reported that evidence had surfaced suggesting a man named Philippe Cabot was the murderer. His son, now dead, allegedly told a 1991 family gathering he'd witnessed the killings.
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