On Watch

A shot in the dark

Posted: Oct 1, 2012 2:42 PM ET Last Updated: Oct 1, 2012 2:42 PM ET
I learned a lot about the Canadian legal system from Lana Louise Clarkson. She's not a lawyer, or a judge, or a cop or a teacher or even another journalist. She was a housewife from Durham Bridge, New Brunswick. And late one night in the early 80s, she took one of her husband's hunting rifles and blew his head off while he was passed out in his recliner in their living room. She was charged with murder, but was found not guilty, and never spent a day in prison.
I know all this because I was a very green reporter assigned to cover her trial.

When police started questioning Clarkson, they gave her the standard "caution". You probably know the American version from watching crime shows. You know: "You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right...."

The Canadian wording is a little different, but it has the same purpose: to make sure an accused knows their rights. As part of the caution, Lana Clarkson was asked if she wanted to speak to a lawyer.

She said yes.

But it was the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. By the time a lawyer was found, roused and brought to the police station, Lana Clarkson had talked. And talked. And talked. Even though she would later claim at her trial that she couldn't remember anything about that night because she was drunk, she laid out exactly what happened for police.

Being drunk was the key to her walking free. The trial judge ruled that she was too impaired to realize that as she kept talking, she was incriminating herself. He ruled her statement to police that night was inadmissable.

No statement, no conviction.

The Crown appealed, but the trial judge's decision was upheld, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Flash forward 30 years.

I'm sitting in Youth Court on Spring Garden Road in Halifax. A teenager is accused of murder. The lawyers are discussing preliminary steps in the case. The Crown says he's going to introduce a statement the teen gave to police the night he was arrested. The defence starts to question that move. The Crown replies: "Well, it satisfies Clarkson."

I went up to the Crown afterwards, and asked him what that meant. I knew the answer; I just wanted to hear his take on it. He said: "Oh, it's just a Supreme Court ruling on the admissability of statements to police." He didn't didn't seem that interested. Then again, he wasn't there.

So what have I learned in the 30 years from the first time I heard Lana Clarkson's name, to the last?

Legal stories are seldom as tidy as they appear in TV crime dramas.

The ends (in this case, a conviction) don't justify the means (an incriminating statement).

Sometimes, guilty people walk free.

And the biggest thing I learned was that, to paraphrase Dickens, courts bring out the best of people, and the worst of people.

Every aspect of human nature is on display, every day, in the courts in our country.

The stories have fascinated me for all these years. And not just the courts. I've been to crime scenes and talked to witnesses and observed first-hand what a murder scene looks like.

I've also talked to dozens of police officers about the work they do, whether it's fraud or theft of violent crime.

What I have seen and heard has made me a lot more careful, maybe even wary, about people and things I encounter. I think it's also made me a little smarter. You can be the judge of that, as I bring some of what I've seen On Watch to this space on-line.
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About the Author

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.

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