David R Williams|
Sono Nis Press. 226 pp. $14.95.
To one man the boy [eight-year old Ernest] remarked, "I never saw a son-of-a bitch die as quick as the Chinaman." To another he said "... the Chinaman can not stand much shooting. He fell like a log."
-- Ernest Chenoweth, eight-year-old accused in With Malice Aforethought.
Readers have always been drawn to literature on the topic of crime. In the preface to With Malice Aforethought, author David R Williams makes the following poignant comment: "Many murder cases are simply examples of greed, lust, revenge, or other manifestation of raw human emotions, but even so, all murders have a certain fascination."
Among the narrative accounts of six of Canada's most controversial trials, five of murder and one of treason, With Malice Aforethought includes a chapter on the case of Edward Chenoweth, the youngest Canadian ever to have been tried for a capital crime.
The Chenoweth case represents a retrospective look at how socio-political forces often influence or affect the outcome of a criminal prosecution.
The setting was Rossland, British Columbia, in the year 1900. The political climate in the West Kootenay region was clearly anti-Chinese. The inhabitants there saw the arrival of the Chinese in Canada as an invasion imperiling an essentially Anglo-Saxon society, one which they believed would deprive them of opportunities for work.
Against this backdrop, eight-year-old Edward Chenoweth was tried for the murder of a Chinese labourer/cook who worked for the Chenoweth household.
There was no eyewitness to the murder. The case for the prosecution was dependent on circumstantial evidence. Proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt is usually difficult -- unless, of course, the accused has conveniently provided an inculcatory statement outlining his involvement in the crime.
In the Chenoweth case, the accused had been interrogated by a seasoned private investigator who was hired by the Chief of the British Columbia Provincial Police to solve this senseless crime. In a skilful and lengthy interrogation of the accused, the investigator was able to extract a confession. The accused recounted with precision the grisly details surrounding the killing.
In most instances, such a confession could be tendered at an accused's trial. In Canada, however, no statement made out of court by an accused to a person in authority over the proceeding against him can be admitted into evidence unless the prosecution
can show to the satisfaction of the trial judge that this statement was made freely and voluntarily.
The statement in the case of Chenoweth was ruled inadmissible and, in the end, the jury was never made aware of its existence.
In spite of this, the case for the prosecution appears to have been doomed from the outset. The prosecutor who was responsible for the file at the preliminary inquiry was not interested in prosecuting this case; the presiding trial judge at the preliminary inquiry did not want to order the accused to stand trial in the BC Supreme Court.
Instead of dismissing the charge outright, the judge took the highly improper step of referring the question to the Attorney General. The Attorney General, in turn, through his Deputy, asked the preliminary inquiry judge to commit the accused to stand trial. The trial judge reluctantly agreed.
The trial took all of two days to complete. The trial judge's charge to the jury left no doubt in their minds that they should acquit.
Many readers may ask if the outcome would be decided differently, today. The simple answer seems to be no, at least in law. In Canada, a person can not be charged with a criminal offence unless that person is at least twelve years of age at the time of the offence. Secondly, the confession that Chenoweth gave to the private investigator would appear to be inadmissible by today's standard.
Was justice done, or seen to be done, as the well-known axiom provides? That is a question for the reader to decide. Williams, a trial lawyer with thirty-five years of experience, seems to think so, in turning out a defence of our legal system. As the book's jacket suggests, "Williams unhesitatingly concludes that there is no reason to doubt the justice of the verdict in any of the six cases".
Editor's Note: David R Williams' With Malice Aforethought was nominated in the best true crime book category by the Crime Writers of Canada. The annual Arthur Ellis awards were presented June 1994.
[At the time of the original review] Andrew Fong was a Crown Prosecutor with the Alberta Justice Department of eight years and a contributor to the Crown Attorney Association's weekly publication.