jump to navigation

Bookends: Murder is a matter of decision and action March 10, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, mystery, Whitehorse Star.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

Bookends: Murder is a matter of decision and action

By Dan Davidson

January 11, 2017

– 779 words –

Black River Road 

Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character

By Debra Komar

Goose Lane Editions

224 pages

$17.93

also available in e-book format.

Debra Komar is the author of three previous books that have used her forensic investigative skills to reexamine real life historical crimes that have taken place somewhere in Canada.

In The Bastard of Fort Stikine, she took on a case from 1842, in which a miscarriage of justice in northern British Columbia was hushed up by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The death of John McLoughlin Jr. may have been a justifiable homicide, but Komar gave it the hearing it never got at the time.

In The Lynching of Peter Wheeler she looked at the evidence in the case of a coloured man who was hanged on the assumption that he has murdered a white girl. In 1896, forensic detective work was in its infancy and Komar concludes that several competing narratives were permitted to overcome the facts of the case

In The Ballad of Jacob Peck, Komar examined an even earlier case, from 1805, in which Amos Babcock was found guilty of killing his sister, under the influence of a religious mania. That he did the deed is not in doubt in her view, but how he came to do the deed, how he was inspired and by whom, become clear during Komar’s narrative.

Her method is to visit the archives, pull out the available material on cases which are somewhat shady, and see what a full “cold-case” examination of the existing records will reveal.

Each book so far deals with a particular manner in which the facts of a case may be distorted. Her most recent book, Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character, provides its theme in the title.

What is, or should be, the role of an accused person’s character in determining his or her guilt or innocence? The murders of Maggie Vail and her child are particularly instructive in examining this premise, for this 1869 case, taking place in St. John. New Brunswick, is seen to be the first in which the social standing and reputation of the accused, respected architect John Munoe, were used as the main argument in his defense by his trial lawyer.

“His lawyer’s strategy was as simple as it was revolutionary,” for that time and place, she writes.

“Munroe’s wealth, education and exemplary character made him incapable of murder.”

These things had not rendered him incapable of having an extramarital affair with Maggie, or of fathering a child with her. That he was connected to her in a number of ways and could be traced to the area where, some months latter, a group of teenaged berry pickers stumbled across the badly decomposed bodies, were facts dismissed by his lawyer as incongruent with his character.

Komar prefaces the elegantly told story of Munroe’s life with an essay titled “The Dahmer Effect” in which she shows how the case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer led forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz to develop his theory of universal lethality. In short, under the right circumstances, anyone can make the decision to become a killer; it’s the ability to decide and the will to act that make the difference.
Dietz wrote, “I think people are born with the inherent ability to be cruel and harmful and destructive and selfish and acquisitive. It’s the function of many of the institutions of society to train us out of that.”

To some this would seem to contradict the notion that people are naturally good and that crimes such as murder are committed by deviants. To others this might well put a new spin on the older notion of original sin, divorcing it from any connection the sexual act.

In the courts of the post-Dahmer days, character, and its adjunct, motive, matter less than decisions and actions, and it is this point that Komar uses the Maggie Vail case to illustrate.

She does so in a prose style that deliberately echoes 19th century writing and is supported by useful maps, photographs, memorabilia from the high profile trial and a very thorugh listing of footnotes and references.

Debra Komar was the fall to early winter writer-in-residence at Berton House, having turned to writing non-fiction crime books after 23 years as a practicing forensic anthropologist. She has testified as an expert witness at The Hague and throughout North America and is the author of many scholarly articles and a textbook, Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice.

-30-

Advertisements