New York Times corrects Marshall obituary

The New York Times has corrected its obituary of Donald Marshall, Jr., following remonstrations from Contrarian and from one of the lawyers who represented Marshall before the celebrated inquiry that bears his name.

The original Times obit, published in its August 7 edition, two days after Marshall’s death, contained the following paragraph:

Late on the night of May 28, 1971, Mr. Marshall and a friend, Sandy Seale, went walking in a Sydney park and tried to rob an older man, Roy Ebsary, who drew a knife and killed Mr. Seale.

As Contrarian wrote to the obituary’s author, William Grimes:

The Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr. Prosecution, composed of three senior and distinguished jurists from other Canadian provinces, spent more than a year investigating Mr. Marshall’s wrongful conviction. Its report, the findings of which are available online, completely exonerated Marshall of any alleged robbery attempt on the night of Sandy Seale’s death.

Their report said, in part: “The Commissioners have found that Seale was not killed during the course of a robbery or attempted robbery.”

The fable that Marshall was trying to rob Ebsary became a convenient canard for officials hoping to evade responsibility the whole travesty. In the years since the Marshall Commission cleared Marshall and condemned nearly everyone involved in the case, it has become a refuge for racists who believe too much was made of the Marshall case. It is really disheartening to see it repeated in the Times obituary…

It would be a terrible thing to have this calumny permanently enshrined in the Times obituary. I hope you can arrange to have a correction published as soon as possible.

This produced a most interesting reply:

I have been discussing this point with Anne Derrick, who takes your view, and with Michael Harris who does not, for reasons I can go into. The “canard” you refer to came directly from Marshall’s mouth into Harris’s ear, and if you can explain why that should be discounted, I am willing to listen.

Contrarian responded with a 2200-word brief setting forth the commission’s findings on the reasons why, for a brief period immediately preceeding and following his release from wrongful imprisonment, Marshall indicated that he and  Seale had been trying to roll Ebsary when the murder took place, a false admission Marshall later recanted. This led to the Times’ correction, published September 3.

Correction: An obituary on Aug. 7 about Donald Marshall, Jr., whose wrongful conviction for the 1971 murder of a friend and exoneration 11 years later led to a re-examination of Nova Scotia’s legal system and changes in Canadian rules of evidence, misstated the circumstances that led to the friend’s killing, which had actually been committed by an elderly man they had encountered in a park. While Mr. Marshall admitted he was with his friend during that encounter, he withdrew an earlier admission that they were trying to rob the elderly man; Mr. Marshall was never charged with robbery. The obituary also misstated a change in rules of evidence resulting from the case. The prosecution must now fully disclose to the defense any evidence it has; the defense must ensure that full disclosure from the prosecution takes place, and must fully disclose its own evidence only in establishing alibis. The rule change does not mean that both “the prosecution and the defense must now share evidence fully.”

One of the features that marks the New York Times as a great newspaper is the integrity it shows by running frequent corrections. Newspapers publish tens of thousands of facts a day about contentious issues under pressure of deadline. Mistakes are inevitable. Commitment to their diligent correction is unfortunately rare.

One final footnote about this saga:

The Times’ initial mistake is entirely understandable. It was based on an erroneous account in Justice Denied, a book by Michael Harris, published before the Royal Commission examined the facts and cleared Marshall. What’s astonishing, in Contrarian‘s opinion, is that Harris, now a right-wing radio talk show host in Toronto Ottawa, would stick to his mistaken guns, and, apparently, lobby the Times in private to do so as well.

On the morning of Donald Marshall’s funeral, Harris, who did not attend the Marshall Commission’s 89 days of public hearings, gave CBC-Cape Breton an interview. While purporting to discuss Marshall and the impact of his case, Harris kept returning, in unctuous tones, to his own role in the case. He portrayed himself as a trusted confidant of Marshall’s, as the person to whom Marshall turned for help again and again, “whenever he was in trouble”—a phrase he repeated.

Suffice to say that those to whom Marshall actually turned for help, and from whom he actually received it, take a different view of Harris’s role.