Criminal procedure in Halifax’s first murder trial

I am currently reading Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax by Jon Tattrie (Pottersfield Press, 2013) and Bluenose Justice: True Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Murder by Dean Jobb (Pottersfield Press, 1993). Both are narrative nonfiction, as rich in story as in thorough detail. Jobb’s book was Tattrie’s source for Cornwallis on the subject of the first murder and execution in Halifax.

“I am gone!” were the last words of Abraham Goodsides, Halifax’s first murder victim.

The accused was Peter Cartcel, not Carteel — Thomas Akins didn’t have digital restoration to help with his research. Cartcel didn’t speak much English among settlers who were mostly from London. He and Abraham Goodsides got into an argument on the Beaufort. Goodsides slapped Cartcel, and Cartcel returned it with a knife to the chest, which translates to any language. The other victims were wounded trying to apprehend him, and Goodsides died immediately.

As I wrote earlier, Governor Cornwallis (pictured above) formed his council of high-ranking colleagues into a general court. None had legal training, but all knew they had to show they could maintain order. Justice must be seen to be done, and swiftly.

Tattrie notes that Cornwallis sat as a judge on courts martial after the Pacification of the Scottish Highlands, sanctioning officers who had surrendered to the Jacobites early on. His experience almost certainly informed the first general court in Halifax. According to Jobb, it was modelled after the general court headed by the former governor at Annapolis Royal.

I now have some more insight into the procedural aspects of the trial about which I had been curious after reading Akins’ account. From Tattrie:

Cartcel had no lawyer, barely spoke English, and mounted no defence. An interpreter translated his not guilty plea to the court. The case of King vs. Cartcel was held before a twelve-man jury appointed by Cornwallis. It had sailors, a surgeon, a schoolmaster, farmers and artisans. They were all English. The jury deliberated for thirty minutes before finding Cartcel guilty. Cornwallis sentenced him to hang.

He could not hope to defend himself in English, but pleaded not guilty in French all the same. Peter Cartcel certainly had need of better access to justice in 1749;  there was only one attorney in town, who likely didn’t speak French. He was hanged two days later.

Imagine the bias in this courtroom: an entirely English jury, an English victim, and the victim’s shipmates as witnesses. (Cartcel was crew on the Baltimore.) Cornwallis and his council moved themselves off the scene of the crime (their “floating seat of government”) and held court in a warehouse onshore, but that was likely to make space for more people, not to avoid tainting the jury.

The governor wrote home to seek approval (quoting from Tattrie):

“We endeavoured to follow as near as possible the English laws and customs,” Cornwallis wrote to London. “We may have failed in form, but the substance and design of the law was certainly observed.” … The eventual response praised the trial as “very regular and proper” and said it would “convince the settlers of the intention of conforming to the Laws and Constitution of the Mother Country in every point.”

Convincing the settlers to conform to English law was undoubtedly the point of this hurried affair. As Jobb points out, no one was appointed to advocate for Cartcel, nor any time allowed for tempers to cool.

Legal scholar and chief justice Joseph Chisolm noted two hundred years later that even at that time provocation was available as a partial defence to murder, reducing the charge to manslaughter, thereby reducing the punishment from hanging to prison time.

Jobb cites Chisolm:

“It is not outside the bounds of reason that an impartial jury, properly instructed by the court, would have found that the homicide was committed in the heat of passion. … In fact, it would have been hard for them to have found otherwise.”

Either no one knew to tell Cartcel, no one cared, or no one wanted to deny the new city its first hanging. Cornwallis was intimately familiar with the deterrent value of a public execution after “pacifying” the Highlands. But that’s my biased Scots view.

Frontier justice, Halifax style: it ain’t pretty, and it probably involves a boat.

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