[Originally posted, with a few editorial changes, at Canadian Lawyer]
A common argument from supporters of capital punishment is that it should only be imposed when we’re absolutely certain that the condemned person indeed committed the horrible crimes of which he was accused. And if there were indeed a way to be 100% sure that a person found guilty of murder was indeed guilty, I might be more sympathetic to this argument. I do believe there are some crimes so ghastly that the penalty of death is justifiable.
However, in any criminal case, the prosecution bears the burden of proving the accused person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard becomes even more strict when the alleged crime is particularly serious, and the punishment particularly severe. If a person has been found guilty of murder following a trial, by definition we are “100% sure” he indeed did it.
And yet, we know all too well that this isn’t the case. Donald Marshall and Guy-Paul Morin were found guilty of murder, only to be exonerated. More troubling, this has happened in jurisdictions where capital punishment is still imposed. In the United States, the Death Penalty Information Center lists 147 people who were sentenced to death, only to be acquitted or have their charges dismissed or pardoned.
In practice, the death penalty has been disproportionately used against minorities and the poor, and innocent people have almost certainly had their lives taken by the state. In the 1890s, it happened in Nova Scotia.
Debra Komar’s The Lynching of Peter Wheeler makes a strong case that, at the very least, there was reasonable doubt as to whether Wheeler really killed fourteen-year-old Annie Kempton of Bear River, Nova Scotia. But he was hanged anyway, following a botched and biased police investigation, a smear campaign by the media, and a dubious trial.
Indeed, the most startling thing about The Lynching of Peter Wheeler is finding out what passed for “journalism” in Nova Scotia just before the turn of the 20th century. Whatever sins are committed by websites and 24-hour news channels today pale in comparison to the blatant speculation and outright fabrication by tabloid papers based in places like Digby and Annapolis Royal. It turns out that even smaller communities had daily or weekly papers at the time, and people were hungry for news about the scandalous murder of young Annie Kempton. With a few noble exceptions, these reporters were going to give it to them, facts be damned.
They probably couldn’t have invented a “villain” like Wheeler, who had the misfortune of being foreign-born, of questionable ethnic origin, single, lower-class and (though deeply spiritual and well-versed in the Holy Bible) not a regular churchgoer. Throw in the fact that he rented a room from a single woman to whom he seemed very close, and the fact that he was at least acquainted with the victim (though he couldn’t possibly have been at her residence when she was murdered, a fact the authorities sort of waved off) and you had the perfect scoundrel.
Few people come out of The Lynching of Peter Wheeler with their reputations intact, but Halifax detective Nicholas Power probably looks worst of all. A shameless self-promoter who kept nominating himself for the King’s Police Medal until they finally gave in and awarded it to him, Power was tasked with finding out who killed Annie Kempton – or, more accurately, confirming that the suspicious Peter Wheeler did it. Evidence which may have raised doubts about his guilt was ignored, and damning information was regularly whispered to the papers. Even though the trial was moved from Digby to Kentville, the outcome was never in doubt. And in the end, the execution was botched so badly by the local sheriff (who insisted on carrying out the procedure himself, even though Canada’s national executioner was in town) that Wheeler was slowly and painfully strangled to death.
Komar’s well-researched book reads like a novel, but she is unable to answer the ultimate question, which the prosecutor used as his key argument before the jury: if Peter Wheeler didn’t kill Annie Kempton, then who did it? A few possible culprits are named, but there wasn’t nearly enough evidence to link them conclusively to the murder. This unanswered question might have swayed the jury that condemned Peter Wheeler, but it wasn’t the question they had to answer.
The only issue that mattered was whether his guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt? In retrospect, Komar establishes that it couldn’t. But it’s far too late for Peter Wheeler.