Wilbert Coffin's guilt still in question 60 years after his execution
Gaspé man convicted in 1953 murder of an American tourist, maintained his innocence to the gallows
On Feb. 10, 1956, a black flag flew over Bordeaux prison in Montreal as Wilbert Coffin walked to the gallows and became the 86th prisoner to meet his end with the state executioner.
Coffin, convicted of murdering an American tourist hunting in Gaspé, maintained his innocence.
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That might have been the end of this tale had it not been for Coffin's family and home community in Quebec's Gaspé region, who have long maintained the prospector was a scapegoat — a serendipitous fall guy sacrificed to protect the image of the region.
"We never ever dreamt that my brother would go to the gallows," said Marie Coffin-Stewart, Wilbert's younger sister.
Coffin-Stewart, now 85 years old, had left home and was living in Toronto when her brother was arrested. She found out about the affair on the car radio while driving to work.
"It was a great shock," she said. "He was a very caring man. I often thought to myself what a terrible hardship it must have been for him to be locked up in prison when he couldn't stand to have an animal caged."
The crime itself was a gruesome affair. Three Americans — a man, his son and a family friend — went missing in the woods while out on a hunting trip. Their remains, ravaged by animals, wouldn't be found for weeks.
Coffin admitted to having met the men when their truck ran into mechanical problems before their disappearance. He was also found to be in possession of some items stolen from the victims.
But he went to his grave swearing he had nothing to do with their deaths. He was convicted of the murder of one of the three — the youngest, Richard E. Lindsay.
Coffin didn't testify at his trial and no witnesses were called in his defence. Many, including his family, believe he was railroaded.
"As far as I'm concerned, it was the Quebec government that was pressured into doing it from a hunting club in the States," his sister said. "They wanted to get the case solved and they didn't care who it was."
Coffin's case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1954, in a 5-2 decision, his request for leave to appeal was dismissed and his fate sealed.
The Brossard Commission, a provincial inquiry convened in 1964 to investigate "L'Affaire Coffin," heard from hundreds of witnesses and eventually also determined he received a fair trial.
Now, six decades after Coffin took his last breath, his case may be inching toward one last bright light.
Keeping the case alive
In 2007, amid mounting pressure from Coffin's family and supporters, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion calling for a swift investigation into the case. Nothing much came from the largely symbolic motion.
But the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) has been quietly working on Coffin's saga for a decade, sifting through a mountain of documents, legal briefs and records.
It's really all that's left after the toll of time slowly picked away at the list of witnesses, lawyers and judges that once were the guardians of the facts.
"We are largely left with only documentary evidence, which makes this case far different from other cases that we have worked on," said Elisabeth Widner, a lawyer with AIDWYC.
The questions lingering in the case centre on whether Coffin was the last person seen with the victims.
When his case went to the Supreme Court, he provided a sworn affidavit saying that when he left the three hunters, two other Americans they appeared to know had joined the party.
"We've now been able to see there were many, many sightings that appear to be credible of these two other Americans in the bush with a jeep," Widner said.
"The difficulty is we can't actually speak to the people who saw them because they are deceased, but we are trying to assemble all that material to see if there is a clearer picture that would emerge around that."
The association hopes to have its file ready to submit to the federal justice department's criminal conviction review group soon. The ultimate goal is to have the case referred back to the provincial court.
"I would like to see my brother's name cleared," said Coffin-Stewart, who has spent the majority of her life working toward that goal. "It was a terrible impact on my family. We were always so outgoing and happy. It changed an awful lot in our lives."
The full account of Coffin's side of the tale may never be known.
All that's left are the the affidavit, court documents, the last living memories of his family and his tombstone quietly tucked in the graveyard of the Anglican church in his hometown, York Centre, Que. On Wednesday, there will be a service at the graveside marking the anniversary of his death.
Carved into the nondescript stone is the last mortal plea of a man who maintained his innocence to the grave: "Judge not, that ye be not judged."