11 mai 2010


What happened at the Coroner’s Inquest, in the case of R. vs. Wilbert Coffin, still gives rise to several commentaries. Irregularities that were supposedly committed at the Coroner’s Inquest were blown out of proportion. That is why I thought it was appropriate to publish another excerpt from the Brossard report on this subject. In his notes, Justice Brossard gets to the bottom of it. And he sets aside the recriminations of Dr. Rioux and one notary Bernard, who served as a juror. The latter still wonders what he was doing there. Here is an opportunity for him to find out. And finally, Mr. Pascal Alain will also understand what importance the Coroner’s inquest had in the coffin affair.
Following Justice Brossard’s RELECTIONS, I also post an excerpt from the report wherein Justice Brossard gives his opinion on Dr. Rioux’s competence as a coroner.


I have had the opportunity, in the course of my study of the Coroner’s inquest, to note a certain number of irregularities which were committed in the process; however, these irregularities were without effect on Coffin’s trial.
I am aware that the Coroners Act is being revised; I bring these irregularities to the attention of those in charge of revising that act.
The irregularities that this enquiry revealed to us underline certain weaknesses of that act.
According to the provisions of section 24 of that act, when a Coroner’s inquest is held before a jury, the main purpose of this inquest is to determine if the death of the deceased person is ascribable to violence, negligence or to someone’s misdemeanour.
It is up to the Coroner to choose the jurors among the “notables” of the place. The act does not mention what qualifications are required to be considered a « notable »; we could easily imagine that an illiterate or a drunkard is a « notable if, for example, he has financial resources!
Section 34 requires that Coroner’s inquests be held publicly except when the ends of justice and public morality would dictate the contrary.
Section 42 stipulates that the verdict must declare if there were crime or not and if there were crime it must mention the person or persons who should be held responsible and the relevant facts of that crime fully reported.
The verdict of Coroner’s jury does not constitute a proof of guiltiness of whoever is held criminally responsible because proceedings before the Coroner are not a trial.
The Crown is not obliged to retain the charge suggested by the verdict; however, under the terms of section 448 of the Criminal Code, the person or persons held criminally responsible by a verdict of a Coroner’s jury must be brought before a Justice of the Peace for a preliminary enquiry at the conclusion of which he or she or they may be released or prosecuted as charged or a lesser charge. Even if no one is held criminally responsible according to the Coroner’s verdict, the Crown has always the right to indict any person it suspects being the author of the crime. The testimonies taken at the Coroner’s inquest may not be used at the trial.
No section of the Criminal Code requires that a Coroner’s inquest be held except in the case of capital punishment.
From the preceding, it appears that a Coroner’s inquest is not essential to allow the Crown to charge a person suspected of having been criminally responsible for the death of a man and that, should it be otherwise, the Crown is not bound by the verdict of the jury. The only true utility of the Coroner’s inquest is to allow the Crown and the police to identify whoever is responsible for the death of a person by means of summons of witnesses and their obligatory testimonies under oath and to entrust the jury selected by the Coroner the power to decide who may be indicted.
As the holding of a Coroner’s inquest before the indictment is obligatory, and as the jury of the Criminal Assizes called upon to render a verdict as to the guiltiness of the person who has been indicted does not know if he has been so according to the coroner’s jury, or notwithstanding a verdict to the contrary, the Assizes jurors may be led to believe in the probability that the accused has been held criminally responsible by the Coroner’s jury.
I humbly suggest that this may cause the jurors to be biased as to the guiltiness of the accused since six other jurors have already held him, if not guilty, at least criminally responsible.
Consequently, we may wonder whether it would not be necessary to seriously study the possibility of limiting the powers and jurisdiction of the Coroner and his jury to the discovery of the circumstances in which the death of a person occurred without ascribing the responsibility of that death, by a verdict of a semi judiciary character, to one or determined individuals; in this case, as well as in the others, the Crown would have the responsibility to indict whoever it finds appropriate without his conduct being dictated by six persons more or less qualified and informed to make such a decision.
In a time where the transmission of news has reached such a degree of quickness and the broadcasting of reports on a Coroner’s inquest and on the verdict rendered following those inquests reach the population as far as the most remote corners, it becomes impossible to find eleven persons to form a jury, whose mind is not more or less biased by the publicity on those inquests and their verdicts.
Therefore, it would seem essential for more impartiality and greater objectivity on the part of the jurors that the publication, by any communication agent and news broadcasting, of proceedings before the Coroner’s jury, be prohibited.
Be that as it may, and whatever the outcome of the preceding suggestions, the irregularities that occurred in the course of the Coroner’s inquest in the Coffin case, even if they had no effect on the Peerce jury, show clearly the danger of entrusting a person who is not a law person, and is not knowledgeable of the procedure and criminal evidence laws, the extremely delicate task of conducting inquests seeking to establish a presumption of criminal responsibility or non responsibility; as to the task of determining the medical or material causes of the death, it could continue being given to physicians accredited with the Court.
It also appears to me that officers of the Department of the Assistant Attorney General should make sure that all Coroners observe rigorously the provisions of section 37 of the Coroners Act which require that the testimonies of witnesses be taken in writing and signed by the witness. The strict observance of this rule brings out more clearly the necessity of entrusting the Coroner functions to law persons solely.


(My literal translation)
I only mention that, for memory sake, at the time of the trial of a person accused of murder, nothing, absolutely nothing of what was said at the Coroner’s inquest must be brought to the attention of the jury that is hearing the case on the merits.
There has been no proof laid before us leaving to believe that this rule was infringed.
In other respects, no proof was submitted to us tending to establish that the twelve jurors of the Percé jury had been informed by whomsoever of what had taken place at the Coroner’s inquest, more particularly, regarding the verdict of the Coroner’s jury and the circumstances wherein it was rendered.
However, the proceedings before the Coroner are part of the whole process, which culminated in Coffin’s condemnation ; the Commission has investigated on the doings of those who were involved in the presentation of the proof before the Coroner’s jury.
Truly speaking, there were two Coroner’s inquests, a first one, in two sittings on the 18th and 27th of July 1953, when a verdict was rendered whereby the three American hunters had been assassinated by one or more unknown persons, and a second inquest, which was theoretically the resumption of the first one which had taken place on the 27th of August 1953.
The three sittings were presided by Doctor Lionel Rioux, then Coroner for the District of Gaspé, and who had occupied this function for several years.
Doctor Rioux was no doubt an honourable physician, honest, competent, and knowing well his medical science and devoted to his clients.
Unfortunately, one may not say the same thing regarding his competence and legal knowledge to act as Coroner.
Without it being necessary to overwhelm furthermore this physician and honest citizen, I find myself in the difficult obligation to point out the following facts which were brought to the knowledge of the Commission...
If one may judge him by the answers he has given us, Doctor Rioux knew nothing of the terms, meaning and the effects of the protection that must be granted a witness who appears before the Coroner’s inquest and who asks for it so that his answers may not incriminate him.
Doctor Rioux was so little certain of his rights and obligations as Coroner, that before the last sitting of the inquest, which was to be held on the 27th of August, deemed necessary to consult the then Solicitor General, the honourable Antoine Rivard, (who had become justice of Quebec Court of Queen’s Bench) as to the rights he might have to attempt to obtain from Wilbert Coffin admissions, and, at the end of the inquest, to call to his help Mtre Noël Dorion, then Crown prosecutor, for him to give the jurors, who had momentarily withdrawn from the court, instructions on their own duty and on the nature of the decision they had to reach.
Having received from the honourable Solicitor General the information that he had the right to ask any questions, apparently relevant, in order to obtain the truth from each witness, he appeared to have come to the conclusion that he had received from the Solicitor General full liberty to try to obtain admissions from Wilbert Coffin.
I shall come back later on what happened at the end of the sitting of the 27th of August. I shall first continue to enumerate errors and irregularities committed by Doctor Rioux.
At the sitting of the 27th of July, while the doctor did not have at his disposal an official stenographer, but had however the services of his secretary, the doctor took his own notes himself of what witnesses had declared while heard by him, more particularly, Wilbert Coffin. Then, an unwordable thing occurred, he had sheets signed in blank by the various witnesses, on which he would subsequently transcribe the testimony of each one of them. One or two days after the inquest, with the help of his own notes and that of his secretary might have taken, he transcribed on those sheets, so signed in blank, the witnesses’ testimonies. A second unwordable thing happened, all the depositions were transcribed in the French language, while the majority of witnesses had been heard in the English language. A third unwordable thing happened, he had obtained Coffin’s signature on two white sheets, one having been used for the transcription of Coffin’s deposition in the French language and the other in the English language. The Assistant Attorney General, Mtre C.E. Cantin, informed us that he had given formal instructions to correct this irregular procedure, and having, consequently, ignored, regarding Doctor Rioux, the irregularities which were revealed at the present enquiry.
Therefore, at the enquiry, the Doctor was examined at length on the exactness of Wilbert Coffin’s affirmations, transcribed by him in the English language; he certified their exactness more specifically with regard to the description given by Wilbert Coffin of the jeep he pretended having seen as well as his occupants. He affirmed categorically that Coffin had spoken of a jeep « which looked like an old army jeep, something like a panel”. He also affirmed that Coffin had not mentioned a station-wagon, contrarily to what he, Doctor Rioux, had declared on television, in December 1963 ; he explained that on television, having been « taken a little by surprise », he may have used the expression station-wagon, involuntarily, rather then that of an « army jeep ».
The proof has moreover revealed to us that one of the six members who had seated on the jury during the first two sittings of the inquest, one Mr. De Grouchy was replaced, for the second sitting by a new juror, notary Gabriel Bernard and that the Coroner did not think to read again to the jury, notwithstanding the replacement of one of the six members, the depositions which had been received and signed at the sitting of the 27th of July. (This change was unknown to Mtres Dorion and Maher).
In other respects, doctor Rioux informed the Commission that, while it was his desire to hear Coffin anew, he was dissuaded in so doing by Mtre Noël Dorion, the Crown attorney, and that he therefore did not call Coffin to be heard, who was at the time outside of the house where the inquest was being held.
Doctor Rioux pretended once more that it was at the request of Mtre Dorion, himself, who invited the latter to go before the members of the jury, behind a folding-screen, to give them instructions, and this, after the president of the jury, Mister Lloyd Annett, had come to see him in the course of the jury deliberations to inform him that the jury was not prepared to find Coffin « guilty » or « criminally responsible », (he does not know too well), because of an insufficient circumstantial evidence as to his responsibility for the murder, while he was satisfied as to his responsibility regarding theft. It is because, with reason, he did not consider a verdict in this direction satisfying that he accepted Mtre Dorion’s offer to go and give members of the jury explanations.
Mtre Dorion explained this morning to the Commission that, before going to the room where it was supposed to be held, he had informed the Coroner that it would be preferable not to hear Coffin, and that the latter seemed to have accepted his reasons, which were the following : he considered then, as always, unjust for an individual seriously suspected of being the author of a murder that he be examined at the inquest where he may be found criminally responsible for the death of the victim.
Mtre Dorion explained that, while the inquest was in progress, he had talked about it with Mtre Maher, Coffin’s attorney, who had not only been in agreement with him but he also had declared that it was his own desire that Coffin not been heard. As to his visit to the members of the jury, Mtre Dorion explained that it was not from his own initiative, but at the request of the Coroner himself, that he went to give them instructions and that he did so in the presence of the Coroner and Mtre Maher : On that point, Mtre Dorion was corroborated by Mtre Maher
Then, it appears that when he gave information to the members of the jury, while telling them that they must listen to the dictations of their conscience and base their verdict on the proof they had received, Mtre Dorion deemed timely to inform them that, whatever their verdict, Coffin would be charged of the murder of the Americans, and that, in accordance with the instructions he had received from the Department of the Attorney General. The proof submitted to us confirms that such instructions had effectively been given to Mtre Dorion before the inquest was held.
Mtre Dorion’s explanations, confirmed by Mtre Maher, were also, in substance, confirmed by the six members of the jury. However, it stems out from the testimonies of the jurors, that it was with a certain hesitation that they held Coffin criminally responsible and that it does not appear doubtful that they were strongly impressed by the information that, whatever their verdict, Coffin would be charged.
These numerous irregularities committed by the Coroner, the ignorance of the importance of stating what protection the witness is entitled to, the subversion of the Coroner to the Crown Attorney’s legal knowledge, his advice and to a certain extent to his instructions, the intervention of the Crown prosecutor with the members of the jury to let them know the decision of the Attorney General to charge Coffin of murder whatever their verdict, the obtaining a blank signature of witnesses on sheets designed to receive the transcript of their testimonies, transcripts of those testimonies in a language other than the one they had been given, were no doubt without legal significance on Coffin’s accusation ; it leads us to believe that they also did not have any effect on the jury, at trial, since they were not brought to their knowledge. Surely, the proof does not reveal that Mtre Noël Dorion had personally imposed himself while informing the Coroner, though his strong personality might have had an influence on him and on the members of the jury. Nonetheless, these facts laid in proof before us support the claims of those, and they are numerous, who believe that our Coroner’s act should be reassessed, revised and deeply modified. I shall have, at the end of this report, recommendations in this regard.
It is amusing to realize that the proof submitted to us, on the circumstances of the Coroner’s inquest, was not the subject of any criticisms or accusations, either in the books of Messrs. Belliveau and Hébert or on television.

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