PROOF ABANDONED, IGNORED OR… ABSENT
WHY COFFIN’S COUNSELS KEPT SILENT
(A literal translation by Clément Fortin)
Mtre FRANÇOIS DE B. GRAVEL, another Wilbert Coffin’s counsel, was also lengthily examined before this Commission. His testimony which lasted several days was not the clearest nor the most serene, nor the most persuasive, nor the most satisfying this Commission had received; it was even, on several occasions, the most deceiving, especially when it concerned facts related directly or indirectly to the allegations contained in the affidavit of his client Coffin, the circumstances surrounding the obtainment of documentary proof of which the Department of Justice was seized and on the information he might have himself communicated to Hébert for the preparation of his first book. On all these items, his testimony was unfortunately filled with incomplete explanations, tergiversations, hesitations, pretended needs to refer to his file or to his “office memos”, excuses, to dodge the questions in referring to facts completely irrelevant to that he was being asked and, unfortunately also, with contradictions. The part of his testimony relevant to the decision that was taken not to call Coffin to the stand or witnesses in his favour was not itself exempt of these weaknesses. Most particularly:
His explanations are more than incomplete when affirming that Coffin’s declaration « It was my personal desire to testify for my own defence » was true ; it is only after much hesitation that he admitted to not believing that Coffin « would have wanted to intervene to silence a witness who was leading the jury on a false path” or knowing that Coffin would have implored his lawyer to let him speak.
On questions more than leading from M. Hébert, Mtre Gravel declares that, on several occasions, Coffin would have told him his desire to be called to the stand at trial ; but he lessens the strength of his preceding affirmation in declaring that during interviews with his client, in the basement of the Percé Court House (during the trial) « we did not discuss at all the possibility for him to witness, but we discussed the testimonies rendered”.
After having declared that Wilbert Coffin has asked him to testify, to the question that was posed to him to know if he has discussed with his colleague Mtre Maher, he answers : « There were many discussions between Wilbert Coffin and myself, and afterwards, Mtre Maher and myself, alone, or Mtre Maher, Louis Doiron and myself”.
He admits, with regrets, that he went through the proceedings of the preliminary enquiry (sic); (in fact, the proof shows that he had sent for copies a short time after having filed his appearance in September 1953, several months before the trial).
Barely twenty-four hours would have passed between the moment the Crown rested its case and that where Mtre Maher made his declaration « the defence rests ».
Mtre Gravel is flying high in attempting to lay on Mtre Maher alone the responsibility to not submit a defence, and in so doing, he makes subtle distinctions between the mandate that Maher was given to lead the trial and the one he had which was an exclusive mandate whereby he was to look after matters of law, and leading us to believe that he was not aware of witnesses who could have possibly been heard. (The proof has revealed the contrary with reference to the witnesses regarding the Arnold jeep, the would-be Lorne Patterson jeep, and in reference to members of the Coffin family ; it has shown also that Mtre Gravel has cross-examined a certain number of Crown witnesses).
Mtre Gravel leads us to believe that he had been advised by Mtre Maloney to call Coffin to the stand, while we know from Mtre Maloney’s testimony that his advice on this point was conditional and under reserve.
Finally, Mtre Gravel admits that when Mtre Maher declared « the defence rests », he has not made any declaration and he was satisfied to keep silent.
Before this Commission, Mtre Gravel’s attitude was more particularly characteristic when he gave the following answer to a question the President of the Commission asked him if he recalled having heard his father saying to him, in the locker room at the Québec Court House, while showing him M. Hébert’s book : « here’s your book » : « Before the beginning of this enquiry, Mr. President, never, to the best of my recollection. I would be surprised. Allow me to repeat : Surely not ». (Then we know today with the subsequent proof that this remark from Mtre Gravel, senior, was really made to his son.)
Are also characteristic Mtre Gravel’s ambiguous attitude, on the one hand, his declarations according to which it had already all the necessary elements to present a « positive » defence ( ?) and that the elements of this « positive » defence resulted exclusively from conversations he had had with his client and not at all on testimonies from the outside, and, on the other hand, his subsequent declarations that, when he declared (before the Commission) that the defence was ready (to call witnesses to the stand), he had not said that Coffin was ready to testify and that the defence would lay above all on Coffin’s possible testimony.
Mtre Gravel took refuge behind the professional secret to refuse to mention the names of the witnesses on whom he could count and for whom lists might have been made ; then, he gives information which tends to establish that he was well aware of the witnesses Mtre Maher thought of with reference to the Arnold jeep.
With much reticence and hesitation, Mtre Gravel admits that he has examined the dossier of the preliminary enquiry ; asked by Mtre Noël Dorion if he had verified if Coffin’s affidavit (of October 1955) was consistent with his « statutory » declaration of August 1953, he refuses to answer directly the question and takes refuge behind Mtre Maloney of whom he says that he has all the dossier in his possession.
Under the circumstances, how is it possible to grant much strength to that part of Mtre Gravel’s testimony and only to this part of his testimony which concerns the decision to not call Coffin to the stand ?
After having, once more, taken refuge behind professional secret to refuse to answer questions concerning the decision which might have been taken by him and his colleagues to not hear Coffin, but following the decision of the President of the Commission to reject the objection raised by Mtre Gravel for the reason that Mtre Maher and himself had been released of their professional secret following the declaration contained in paragraph 3 of Coffin’s affidavit according to which he was not allowed to testify even although he had so wished, Mtre Gravel gives the following information :
He knew for several days that Mtre Maher would say : « the defence rests ».
If he has not objected, it is because, he believed, as he still believes, that the defence counsels have to be unanimous before the jurors.
There never was a unanimous decision taken between him, Mtre Maher and Mtre Doiron.
On the morning where that declaration was made, he knew that it would be made when he went to the Court and he knew the consequences.
He changes his mind and declares that he believes that it was on the same morning that Maher told him what he would say.
He admits that two days before the Crown rested its case that Mtre Doiron had been chosen to plead in French (and we know at that moment Mtre Doiron knew that he would talk after the Crown’s counsels)
He admits that between the verdict and the sentence, Coffin has said nothing or answered the clerk’s question : « Have you something to say before sentence is passed upon you ? »
He ignores if Mtre Maher or Mtre Doiron have informed Coffin that no defence would be made.
He pretends that he, himself, has never informed Coffin.
If we take into account the fact that Mtre Gravel knew, as well as Mtre Maher, Coffin’s declaration of August 6th 1953, the right that the Crown had to adduce in evidence this declaration and to cross-examine Coffin in the event Coffin would testify, the fact that Mtre Maher was of the opinion (with reasons as we shall see later) that this declaration contained declarations made by Coffin dangerous for him, the fact that Mtre Maher and Mtre Gravel shared for the whole duration of the trial the same cabin, and met every day, the collaboration and the cooperation that must necessarily take place between a lawyer and his counsel and that, according to Mtre Maher were granted, the gravity of the consequences of the decision that was taken, it is unconceivable that this decision was not discussed, as affirms categorically Mtre Maher and Mtre Doiron, between the three defence attorneys, and that Mtre Gravel has not agreed to, at the end, even though, at the onset, he might have had, as well as Mtre Maher, a contrary opinion
In other respects, if one takes into account Coffin’s attitude during the trial, his silence, his non intervention, specially, his attitude and his countenance when fateful words were pronounced « the defence rests », Mtre Maher’s categorical declarations that this decision was taken after numerous consultations between him and his client Coffin, the absence of intervention on the part of members of the Coffin family during and after the trial until the Fall 1955, the fact that none of them was invited, during the fateful months of September 1955 to February 1956, to attest that Coffin had expressed to them the desire to be heard, lastly, Coffin’s own silence after the verdict was rendered and before the sentence was pronounced and from there until October 1955, it appears, not only undeniable that it was to his knowledge and with his acquiescence that no defence be presented, but above all that the contrary declaration in his affidavit of 9th October 1955 was only made because he realized, for whatever reason, that it was indispensable a) to explain his original silence and his prolonged silence during the months that followed the Percé verdict and b) to give rise to all subsequent declarations in his affidavit as to the proof that he might have submitted, so he pretended, and the explanations that he would have given if he had testified at the trial.
Considering the reasons for the decision Mtre Maher communicated to this Commission, the proof submitted by the Crown at the trial, Coffin’s declaration of the 6th August 1953, the other declarations reported at the trial and those who were not, namely the declaration of the 27th July 1953, during the Coroner’s inquest, I believe that I am justified to express to you, without hesitation, the opinion that the decision to not submit a defence was a wise decision, under the circumstances, and above all it was not taken against the will of Wilbert Coffin.
I shall, however, venture to express, also, the other following opinion : Contrarily to what has affirmed Mtre Maher, the proof that was submitted to us, allows us to say that it is not because there had been doubts as to the merits of Appeal Courts’ decisions establishing that « the Crown had proven its case » that the present royal enquiry was instituted, but because doubts have been, after these decisions were rendered, cleverly raised, created or suggested with the allegations of facts different than those that had been proven at the trial.
I therefore report to you, in my humble opinion, that the decision not to call Coffin to the stand and to not call witnesses in his favour was not taken against his will, that it was taken, on the contrary, to his knowledge and with his acquiescence, on the common agreement of all defence counsels, for wise and serious reasons relating to his behaviour and to avoid the risk almost fatal to have to call him to the witness stand.
For these reasons, and by means of suggestion, I therefore come to the conclusion that the allegations in paragraph 3 of Coffin’s affidavit are false and that the declarations made to the same effect than those of that paragraph 3 of Coffin’s affidavit, made by Mr. Belliveau and Mr Hébert in their books, are also false.
To the preceding reasons, allowing us to conclude to that falsehood, I must add the reasons deriving from the following facts established before this Commission :
a) The proof made before this Commission that the majority of the other affirmations contained in Coffin’s affidavit were inexact, in all or in major part, and based on facts which, for the most part, Coffin might not have had personal knowledge of and which have been themselves shown to be wholly or partly false;
b) Specially, specially, the proof made before us that it is upon Coffin’s instructions that, the same night he was accused of murder, Mtre Maher went to Coffin’s camp to pick a package where Coffin had (as he admits in paragraph 32 of his affidavit), hidden Eagle’s rifle, that this package contained effectively Eagle’s rifle, that the fact of that removal was, before the trial, discussed with Coffin by Mtre Gravel, and that no effort seems to have been made subsequently by the defence attorneys or by Coffin’s parents to find that Jack Eagle’s rifle, the whole as I shall discuss more at length hereafter. The fact that Coffin complained of the silence that might have been imposed on him at the trial against his will after more than a year following his condemnation.
I consider, therefore, that they were extremely unjust towards Mtre Maher, in particular, and towards the other two Coffin’s counsels, the blames addressed, in brutal and injurious terms, especially by Mr. Hébert, to the defence attorneys.
I do not believe opportune, otherwise, to engage in a discussion of juridical character on the justness (or unjustness) of the right that is granted to anyone accused, whether to be heard in defence or not to be heard, whether he deems it useful to his cause, justness about which M. Hébert seems to have doubts. (The end of this chapter)