Book Review- Real Justice-Convicted for Being MI’KMAQ: The Story of Donald Marshall Jr.
By: Christine Smith (McFarlane)
Can you imagine one night being out with a friend and hanging out with them, and after an encounter with two strangers, your friend lays dead, and you stand accused of his/her murder? This is what happened to Donald Marshall Jr, at the time a young Mi’kmaq living on the Membertou Reserve in Cape Breton with his family in 1971.
“Convicted for Being Mi’kmaq: The Story of Donald Marshall Jr.” is a story about a gross miscarriage of justice and how after Marshall’s friend’s murder, Donald is framed for the crime and spends 11 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. It is also a story about courage and betrayal, of perseverance and luck.
Marshall knew that he was innocent of the murder of his friend, but the officer in charge of the murder investigation was determined to prove his guilt. He bullied other teens into lying so that Marshall would be considered guilty and convicted.
After surviving eleven years in the penal system, it was pure luck and perseverance on Donald Marshall’s part that his case was looked at again, after a jailhouse visit from someone who knew who the real killer was. Individuals who had been previously involved with the case admitted that they had been coerced into lying by the police at the time of the murder in 1971.
It was in 1983 that Marshall was acquitted of the murder he was wrongfully sent to prison for but the victory was bittersweet because the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia (Appeal Division) laid responsibility for his wrongful conviction at his feet. A Royal Commission of Inquiry was established due to Marshall's case in 1990.
The 1990 Royal Commission Report was a searing indictment of the justice system that wrongfully convicted Donald Marshall. It stated that it robbed him of far more than just his liberty. It robbed him of the kinship of his family and community, separated him from his language and culture and subjected him to tension, humiliation and the violence of prison life.
The Royal Commission came to the painful conclusion that racism played a significant role in Marshall’s wrongful arrest and conviction. Marshall’s conviction was also exposed at a time when Canadians and the Canadian justice system had not yet exposed the extent to which the factors in his case, and those unique to subsequent cases, had operated to send other innocent people to prison for murders they didn’t commit.
The reality that factors such as race and socio-economic status contribute to making a person more vulnerable to being wrongfully convicted is deeply troubling, but Marshall’s story is inspiring.
Author Bill Swan does an excellent job of bringing forth Marshall’s story and making other aware that even faced with adversity and struggles, Marshall never lost hope about becoming a free man.
Donald Marshall Jr eventually became a native activist and he is often referred to as the “reluctant hero” of the Mi’kmaq community.
“Convicted for Being Mi’kmaq: The Story of Donald Marshall is published by James Lorimer & Company Ltd and is 179 pages.