Letter to the Editor

June 5, 1869


When the life of a fellow creature is at stake how very careful ought not men to be in the consideration of matters bearing upon the committal of a crime like that for which that poor fellow yesterday was doomed to an ignominious death. In the selection of a jury methinks instead of having men who are in a great measure ignorant of Indians and their nature, when Indian evidence is the most prominent feature in the trial, and instead of having then men who are unable to appreciate particular points of evidence that bear materially upon the issue, it would be well to have men as jurors who are thoroughly conversant with Indians, and can do full justice to weighty points of evidence.

I submit that it is to be deplored that the gentlemen who composed the jury that so hastily dispatched the case of the prisoner charged with the murder of a Salt Spring Island settler were not men versed in such matters, and were in consequence quite unable to apply properly material facts that were brought out in evidence. And, I submit further, that it is also to be deplored that neither Counsel nor Judge were in a more favourable position. Apart from the direct evidence of the Indian, who said he had seen the deed done, there was, in my opinion, nothing brought to light that would, in the slightest degree, tend to criminate the prisoner. On the other hand, much that the Judge dwelt upon in his address to the jury, as strong corroborative circumstantial evidence, appears to men better posted in such matters than he, to favor strongly the prisoner's side of the case.

For instance, the murdered man was proved to have been a left handed person; his knife, with which he was eating his food when he was shot, was in his left hand, and an axe was shown in Court, and a certain spring in the handle pointed out to the jury as indicating the axe to have been used by a left handed man. Now, it is well known to choppers and men accustomed to see an axe used, that a left-handed person will almost invariably swing his axe from the right side; and an axe that had been swung from the right side would have had a spring the reverse of that observable in the axe produced. This is only one item of evidence twisted to bear adversely upon the case for the defence; but it serves to explain what I mean. The wonderfully explicit and straightforward evidence of the Indian who accused the prisoner of murder loses most of its weight when the length of time that has elapsed since the murder was committed is taken into consideration, and the consequently ample opportunity the man has had to [illegible] and perfect even in its most minute details such a statement as he delivered in Court yesterday.

I am afraid that we are, as a community, too careless about the lives of Indians, and yet it seems to me that we ought to be more particular about an Indian than a white man on trial for his life, for the latter hears and understands all that is brought against him, and has an opportunity to explain away things that might otherwise tell against him, while an Indian understands very little that is said, and is in consequence unable to prompt his Counsel on matters that would favor his case. I am as much alive as anyone to the necessity of rendering the lives of settlers on the East Coast as secure as possible. I was a settler there myself many years, and mixed with more and had a more extensive knowledge of both Indians and white people in the agricultural districts than perhaps any other settler on the Island, and I would be the last, when a crime of either great or small magnitude could be brought home to an Indian, to say spare him. It is just as necessary, however, to the best interests of the settler, that punishment be withheld when it is not clearly merited, as it is that it be unsparingly inflicted when it is undoubtedly due.

I might dwell at any length upon the subject, but as my object in addressing you is to endeavour to get the punishment of the Indian who is now under sentence of death mitigated, I will only add a few words on that head. I know it is a delicate affair to touch upon, seeming as it does to reflect upon both Judge and jurors. I will state here, that I do not for a moment doubt that all concerned acted conscientiously; but believing that the result arrived at was not warranted by the evidence adduced, I cannot help making an appeal to the sympathy of the public on behalf of the poor friendless creature. A petition praying for a less severe penalty than that to which he is sentenced, might possibly be productive of some service done in the cause of humanity.

W. Smithe

Source: W. Smithe, "Letter to the Editor," The British Colonist, June 5, 1869

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