Thursday, August 6, 2009

Donald Marshall, Jr. 1953-2009. R.I.P.

Donald Marshall, Jr. died today of complications from a 2003 lung transplant. He was 55.

The name Donald Marshall, Jr. is unfamiliar to most Americans but he was a household name in Canada.

Marshall, Jr. was a Mi'kmaq Indian who became famous for spending 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. He had been sentenced to life in prison for the 1971 murder of his friend Sandy Seale. However, several witnesses came forward later to recant their statements and his conviction was overturned by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeals in 1983.

However, the presiding judge stated that Marshall, Jr. was to blame for his incarceration calling him "the author of his own misfortune." In 1989, the Canadian government launched a Royal Commission looking into his wrongful conviction. It led to changes in rules of evidence regarding disclosure. Marshall, Jr. would also receive compensation for his wrongful conviction. Roy Ebsary, the man who actually stabbed Seale to death, spent only a year in prison on manslaughter before he died.

Unlike the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., racism certainly played a role in the arrest and wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall, Jr. It is worth noting there have been several Canadians who were not Aboriginal who were the recipient of wrongful murder convictions (i.e. David Milgaard, Guy-Paul Morin.) But based on my own experiences growing up in Canada and those of people like Marshall, Jr., I believe Aboriginal Canadians face far more serious racism than do African-Americans today.

In 1999, Marshall, Jr. would again make Canadian legal history when he was at the center of a fishing rights dispute concerning Treaty Aboriginals (that is Aboriginal Canadians who live on reservations.) This ruling would also apply to Aboriginal hunting and gathering practices for Treaty Aboriginals living in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Of course, the ruling did not please non-Aboriginal hunters and anglers who have long argued everyone should be subject to the same law. I'm not unsympathetic to that position. But there are circumstances under which one must treat people differently in order to treat them fairly. Most non-Aboriginal hunters and anglers are in it for recreational purposes while most Aboriginal hunters and anglers do so to make a living. That is something that must be taken into account.

In recent years, Marshall, Jr. had other brushes with the law. He had been accused of attempted murder when he tried to run over another man with his vehicle. The charge was dropped when two agreed to participate in a native healing circle. Marshall, Jr. had also been accused of domestic violence against his wife.

Donald Marshall, Jr. was by no means an angel. But he had a more than a decade of his life unjustly taken away from him. Yet he tried to make the best of things for himself and his community as a free man and for the most part he succeeded.

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