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1990: Donald Marshall exonerated of wrongful conviction

The Story


Donald Marshall Jr. spent 11 years in jail for a murder he did not commit. When he was finally acquitted, the appeal court still called him "the author of his own misfortune." Today, after a fight lasting almost two decades, Marshall's name is finally cleared. The same cannot be said for the police, prosecutors and judges who wrongfully convicted the Mi'kmaq man. A 16,000-page royal commission report released today accuses them of racism, incompetence and miscarriage of justice at every turn. The seven-volume Marshall Inquiry report is a scathing indictment of the Nova Scotia criminal justice system. Its findings are blunt, and unequivocal: Donald Marshall Jr. was wrongfully arrested, wrongfully prosecuted, wrongfully defended, wrongfully convicted of murder, wrongfully treated during his appeal, and deceived and cheated by investigating officials. As we see in this clip, the report is also laden with recommendations to ensure such a travesty never happens again.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Jan. 26, 1990
Guest(s): Ann Derrick, Alex Hickman
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: Susan Ormiston
Duration: 2:53

Did You know?


• The Marshall case is one of Canada's most famous examples of wrongful conviction and racism against Native peoples.

• In 1971, Donald Marshall Jr. and his friend Sandy Seale were walking in Wentworth Park in Sydney, N.S. They struck up a conversation with two strangers, Rob Ebsary and Jimmy MacNeil. Ebsary pulled a knife and fatally stabbed Seale in the stomach. But Ebsary was not charged for the crime. Marshall was.

• Marshall, then 17, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. The trial took just three days.

• Ten days after the conviction, Jimmy MacNeil came forward to say he was with Ebsary and had seen him commit the murder. In 1974, Ebsary's daughter Donna told Sydney police that she had seen her father washing blood from a knife on the night of the murder. In both cases the information was not passed along to either the Crown or the defence team.

• While incarcerated, Marshall battled depression, drugs and alcohol. In 1983, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal acquitted Marshall because Ebsary had admitted that he, not Marshall, had killed Seale. But even as it acquitted him, the court told Marshall he was dishonest in his testimony and therefore partly to blame for his wrongful conviction. "Any miscarriage of justice is, however, more apparent than real," the court suggested.

• A royal commission was established to investigate the case. After three years and $7 million, the damning report was released. "The criminal justice system failed Donald Marshall Jr. at virtually every turn, from his arrest and wrongful conviction for murder in 1971 up to, and even beyond, his acquittal by the Court of Appeal in 1983," the royal commission report stated.

• The royal commission report also stated clearly that Marshall was "convicted and sent to prison, in part at least, because he was a Native person."

• The case thrust Marshall into the national spotlight. It was the subject of a book called Justice Denied: The law versus Donald Marshall (Michael Harris, 1986) and a movie of the same name.

• In 1996, Donald Marshall Jr. was arrested and convicted on three counts of catching and fishing eels out of season. The Mi'kmaq took his case to court, arguing that treaties from the 1760s gave Native people the right to catch fish for sale and excused them from fisheries regulations.

• In 1999, after taking his appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, Marshall won the right to fish year-round. The landmark R. vs. Marshall decision broadened Native fishing rights, and touched off violence in the fishing industry. Non-Aboriginal fishermen objected to what they saw as unfair treatment, cutting 2,000 Mi'kmaq lobster traps. There were tense clashes between Native fishermen, non-Native fishermen and fishery officials.

• In 2003, Donald Marshall Jr. had a double-lung transplant in Toronto to address chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

• On Jan. 2, 2006, Marshall was charged with attempted murder for allegedly trying to run over a man with his car after a New Year's Eve party. He was ordered to undergo a psychiatric assessment to see if he was fit to stand trial.

• Marshall died on Aug. 6, 2009 after being hospitalized for complications resulting from his lung surgery. He was 55.


Also on January 26:
1924: The Canadian Red Ensign is officially recognized as the country's flag. It is replaced by the maple leaf design in 1965.
1980: Prime Minister Joe Clark says Canada will boycott the Summer Olympics in Moscow if Soviet troops are not out of Afghanistan by February 20th. Canada skipped the Games.
2001: The Supreme Court of Canada upholds the law criminalizing possession of child pornography. The judgment reinstates two charges against John Robin Sharpe of Vancouver, which had been dismissed in 1999.


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