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Who is Wilbert Coffin and what is the Coffin Affair?
Who is Wilbert Coffin?Wilbert Coffin was a Canadian prospector from the Gaspé region of Quebec. He was accused and convicted of killing one of three American hunters - Richard Lindsey – also killed were Eugene Lindsey and Frederick Claar. All three were found murdered in the Gaspé woods in the summer of 1953. Coffin was eventually tried and hanged at Montreal’s Bordeaux Prison on February 10th, 1956.
Why was he convicted?Wilbert Coffin was convicted for the murder of one of the three hunters based on circumstantial evidence. Coffin had met the hunters prior to their disappearance when their truck ran into mechanical issues, which Coffin helped them fix. He was later found to have items belonging to the deceased hunters in his possession, and admitted to stealing them (i.e. binoculars, a valise, and a fuel pump). While this in itself was not enough to prove that Coffin murdered the three men, he was convicted on one count of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.
Was Coffin guilty?While Coffin was hanged for the murder, there are numerous sources then and now that point to his innocence. In spite of the fact that Coffin had admitted to meeting the men and taking items from their truck, he held steadfast to his innocence throughout the trial and his eventual hanging. Apart from the items found in his possession, there was a lack of direct evidence linking Coffin to the murder of the three men. Throughout the trial there was no defence presented for Coffin by his lawyer, with no witnesses called to the stand and Coffin himself was not permitted to testify on his own behalf. There were a number of appeals, but all were dismissed by the higher courts. In a later reference to the Supreme Court, the court held in a vote of five to two, not to disturb his earlier conviction for murder. Many today believe that Coffin was not given a fair trial and given the seriousness of his eventual sentencing, this represents a siginficant miscarriage of justice.
Who else could have done it?There are multiple theories as to what happened in the summer of 1953, however, none of them have been established as conclusive. Frederick Gilbert Thompson, an Indigenous man, from the Mohawk Confederacy of Akwasasne in St. Regis, Quebec confessed to the killings in 1958, claiming his close friend Johnny Green was responsible for the death of Richard Lindsay. This confession was later recanted after Quebec authorities dismissed his story as not credible. There were also rumours that a man from Barachois, named Phillippe Cabot, had murdered the American hunters. It was alleged that his young son was with him when it happened, and the son later confessed to the story, but it has never been proven. Other people have come forward over the years but the most credible suspects, even today, were likely the two men in the yellow panelled jeep with American plates that Coffin met at the Lindsey’s camp. There were several other people who saw that same jeep in the area around the time of the murders, however, this evidence was never introduced at trial. While it may have helped in having the Supreme Court hear a reference on the case, ultimately due to the limitations on appeals, it could not be used as evidence. What really happened in the woods that summer and the identity of the person or persons who killed the three hunters, remains a mystery.
Why does it matter today?Miscarriages of justice, or a failure of a court or judicial system to attain the ends of justice, especially through the conviction of an innocent person, reveal critical insights into the workings of our legal system in Canada. This case adds to that discussion, and at the same time points to historical considerations. The Coffin Affair raises questions about justice, in and of itself, and also about the fair and proper administration of justice. At Coffin's trial, the lack of credible legal representation, the many problematic liberties taken by the prosecution and the dismissal of several attempts at appeal raise questions about a potentially innocent man’s ability to be heard within the legal system. His case also left a powerful legacy within Canadian society, with former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau citing it when he abolished the death penalty in 1976, thus underscoring its lasting impact.
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