The lady and the crooks
THIS CRACK CRIMINAL LAWYER was raised in luxury. But she gave up a sheltered life to mingle with some of the toughest hoodlums in Canada
WHEN VERA LILLIAN PARSONS graduated with a master’s degree in comparative literature from Bryn Mawr, an exclusive girls’ school in Pennsylvania, her classmates could justly predict a distinguished career and a gracious life for this handsome, fastidious young woman from Toronto.
Today the outcome has largely justified the prediction: Vera Parsons lives in a quietly
fashionable apartment house in midtown Toronto, surrounded by antiques and objets d’art collected during her extensive travels. The keynote of her decor is a vast white grand piano which she plays authoritatively; she dabbles in sculpture, reads intensely and selectively, gives and attends small parties for people of consequence.
If her life is gracious, her career has been distinguished. But the classmates might be slightly appalled if they followed her to work: they would see this slender, well-groomed, aristocratic-looking woman in deep consultation with an unkempt man in the dismal bull pen beneath Toronto’s police courtrooms; interviewing a hopeless defiant youth in the barred, carbolicreeking Don Jail; dissecting testimony of sin, sorrow and brutality in drab criminal courtrooms.
For Vera Parsons is one of Ontario’s leading criminal lawyers. “Not just a top woman lawyer,” one of her male colleagues insists, “but a top lawyer, period.” And for more than thirty years that great unhappy company of peoplein-trouble have agreed heartily. When Mickey MacDonald, who is still Canada’s Public Enemy No. 1 (if he is alive), was under a fifteen-year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping in 1945, it was to Vera Parsons that he turned. Later he escaped from Kingston Penitentiary and has never been recaptured.
“When Miss Parsons gives the law to a magistrate or a jury,” another of her clients explained, “you know you’ve had everything said for you that could be said.” Crown attorneys who come up against Miss Parsons in court confirm that view, but with considerably less thankfulness. Fred Malone, who recently retired to private practice after a long term as crown representative in Toronto courts, had been experiencing Miss Parsons’ thoroughness for twenty years when they faced each other one day last spring. As the woman lawyer entered court, a serene figure leaning heavily on a cane as a result of a severe attack of polio in' her teens, Malone muttered audibly:
“Oh, my nerves, here comes that woman. She’s sure to make a Supreme Court production
out of her little case and throw my whole court list out of schedule.”
Malone did not exaggerate, either. The young prisoner, police testified, had been caught red-handed, fleeing with stolen goods. But that did not prevent Miss Parsons from cross-examining at length the witnesses for the prosecution, and her submission to the court before sentence amounted to a social service case history of the boy and his environment. To compile it Miss Parsons had interviewed the boy’s mother, sisters, friends and former teachers. The result of this painstaking “Supreme Court production” was a suspended sentence for the accused.
The motivation that causes Miss Parsons to prepare even minor cases with great deliberation and respect for detail is simply explained by her belief in a truth that has become a legal cliche: “Every person is innocent until proved guilty.” She has never been troubled by that perennial burning question the legal profession still debates: “Should a lawyer defend a person whom he or she knows to be guilty?”
It was debated in Toronto last year by the Criminal Justice Committee of the Canadian Bar Association. None of the speakers could agree. Then Vera Parsons raised her silveryblond head, stood up slowly and (“as if address-
ing a class of backward boys,” one of those present described it) spoke a very few words: “What counsel believes as to the guilt of his client is irrelevant, and he never knows that his client is guilty until the court finds him guilty.” Then she sat down.
That seemed to be accepted as the final word. Several senior barristers stood up and cheered, everybody applauded the wisdom of the only woman present, and the meeting adjourned on that note.
Later Miss Parsons enlarged on her philosophy of guilt and innocence. “Often the accused himself doesn’t know if he’s guilty,” she maintained. “Sometimes the law is too complex for a man to judge himself. He may be guilty in the public eye but not in law. He may be frightened or irrational. Countless people may offer him conflicting advice and he may tell his lawyer a different story on every visit. Often, to the lawyer’s surprise, the client may tell still another story in court. Obviously such a person needs help in retaining his status of innocence until proved guilty, and it’s his lawyer’s function to provide that help.”
One example of the extraordinary lengths to which Vera Parsons will go in preparing a defense was the case of Allan Baldwin. Baldwin, a crane operator, was charged with the murder of a Don Jail guard in the spring of 1944, during a break from the jail where he was awaiting the verdict on an appeal against a fifteen-year sentence for bank robbery.
Miss Parsons had not represented Baldwin at the bank robbery trial, and in fact had never even seen him. But after he was convicted on the robbery charge, she had been retained to prepare an appeal to the Supreme Court. Then Baldwin escaped from jail and was recaptured, and a guard was dead. Now in Baldwin Vera Parsons had a client charged with murder. She had never before acted for the defense in a murder charge and, at a preliminary hearing of the charge against Baldwin, she informed the court that she felt it was in her client’s interest to have an experienced lawyer. But not one barrister she approached would touch the case. Some of the lawyers later admitted privately to colleagues that an aroused public opinion against Baldwin made his case “too hot to handle” from the viewpoint of a lawyer’s reputation.
At the time of the jail break Baldwin was in the prison hospital with seven other men, under the watch of Guard Robert Canning. Baldwin and William O’Sullivan, another holdup man, overpowered Canning
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The lady and the crooks
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after a sharp struggle and strapped him by his own belt to a steam pipe. They cut through window bars with a hacksaw, then let down a rope made of sheets and blankets knotted together. Baldwin tried the fifty-foot descent first. He was halfway to the ground when the improvised rope broke, causing him to fall heavily, and cutting off O’Sullivan’s escape entirely. .
When the alarm was raised and guards reached the hospital ward, Canning was dead. Two hundred Toronto policemen launched the biggest manhunt the city had seen up to then. Twenty-two hours later Baldwin was recaptured.
Unable to find what she considered a competent male defense lawyer for Baldwin, Miss Parsons decided to defend her first murder case. When it opened the newspapers made much of what was another “first”: never had a woman in Canada defended on a capital charge. Later she explained that her own motive was quite simple: if she had withdrawn that might have been the last straw in prejudicing his defense, since she was admittedly his lawyer. And her unshakeable conviction was that Baldwin, although a criminal, was not guilty of murder until it had been legally proved.
The prosecution based its case on testimony of other inmates that Baldwin had beaten as well as tied the guard, and on the conclusion of the provincial pathologist, Dr. W. L. Robinson, that Canning died from asphyxia caused by choking, consistent with the pressure of a thumb and forefinger on the throat. The bones on both sides of the guard’s Adam’s apple were broken, Dr. Robinson testified, and death was instantaneous or within five minutes.
Miss Parsons’ defense was that there had been no intention to kill the guard, that rather his death was accidental and that, in murder, intent must be proved. She took the unusual step of putting her client into the witness box. He admitted tying the guard up, even falling heavily on him when “Mr. Canning got a leg loose, kicked out and I slipped.” But he denied intention of killing him, even of hitting him.
After a seven-day trial the jury deliberated eleven hours; no verdict could be reached. A new trial was ordered at a date four months later. Vera Parsons spent that time, or a considerable part of it, studying the anatomy of the human throat with a medical expert who also had court experience. She also studied other aspects of the case, for at the trial she started out by confidently taking apart the testimony of the other prisoners.
When the provincial pathologist had repeated his testimony and was turned over to Miss Parsons for cross-examination, she dramatically displayed her medical research of the past four months. She signaled to an assistant, who unfurled huge colored diagrams of the human throat. What followed cannot be called a medical triumph for the woman lawyer, nor did she exactly shake the testimony of Dr. Robinson. But the pathologist was obviously impressed with the thoroughness of defense counsel’s preparation, and with the knowledgeable alternative possibilities she put forward as to the cause of death. (He even answered “yes” to her long hypothetical question, “Assuming a man was unconscious through a fall and unable to cough up something like a tooth filling or a morsel of food resting long enough on the larynx to close
it, is it possible he would die whether or not he had broken cartilege in his throat?”)
This time the jury took only five hours to agree with Miss Parsons that Baldwin was guilty of manslaughter rather than murder. Since then she has defended two more clients on murder charges, and neither was found guilty of the capital offense.
Sometimes a client or a client’s relatives feel that a woman lawyer might have some sentimental effect on the judge or jury, but Miss Parsons scorns such a weapon. “When I enter court,”
she says, “I am just another blackrobed advocate.”
In fact, in one memorable case in which she defended a man charged with murder, while an eminent male lawyer defended the man’s wife, jointly charged, it was the male lawyer who created an atmosphere of pathos while Miss Parsons relied on law. This was the case of Elmer Hilborn, a Toronto civic employée. One morning in 1947 Hilborn, his wife and three children were found deeply drugged with sleeping tablets. Firemen rushed respirators to the scene, but eight-year-old Bryan
was dead. Police found on a* mantelpiece several notes concerning the settlement of family affairs and other matters. One read: “Please do not
have my children and wife cut up as there is no need for a post mortem as we have all died from an overdose of sleeping tablets.” Since Mrs. Hilborn signed some of the notes, she was charged jointly with murder.
In court Miss Parsons drew from Hilborn a history of misfortune. He began by describing his first marriage. Two babies had died. His wife contracted sleeping sickness, became par-
tially paralyzed, was left hopelessly crippled after a fire and died after two years of suffering. He married again and had three children. Without warning, his wife developed lockjaw and died three days later.
“I could feel myself slipping from this time on,” Hilhorn said. “The trouble was more than I could bear.”
He married a third time, he continued, to make a home for his children. Then, a week before the incident of the sleeping pills, his wife was severely injured when her hair was caught in the washing-machine wringer and her hand was crushed while she tried to protect her head. She suffered great pain and would wake up in the middle of the night suffering from shock and nerves.
From then on, Hilhorn said, it was a nightmare for them both. “I took ninety-three phénobarbital tablets so I could get out of it all, and get away from those horrible nightmares. My wife took a number of these pills so she might go to sleep.” The reason he gave his children about ten pills each, he said, was to help their nervous condition. “I had no intention of poisoning my wife or children,” he declared. “I should have died instead of my boy.”
When it was the wife’s lawyer’s turn to speak, he simply capitalized on what Vera Parsons had elicited so factually: “It is hard to think of this incident with dry eyes,” he intoned. “Poor soul ... no one who has not had such an experience as befell him will ever know how salt was his bread and how steep his stairs.”
Another lawyer who happened to be in court recalled that “there was scarcely a dry eye in court—except Vera Parsons’.” She proceeded briskly to establish facts that convinced the jury that Hilborn was guilty of nothing worse than manslaughter. His wife was freed.
Only the facts for Mickey
Occasionally, however, Miss Parsons considers the emotional effect a client may have on the court. In 1946 she was retained to defend thirty-twoyear-old Georgina Slemensky on a charge of murder. The woman had been living in a one-room shack in Toronto’s east end. When Miss Parsons first saw her client in stained and ragged clothes, she was appalled at the thought of the impression the woman would make on the jury. So she sought out one of her own friends, of Georgina’s approximate size, and borrowed a presentable outfit. Georgina’s newly demure appearance, plus her lawyer’s expert handling of the facts to establish reasonable doubt, brought an acquittal from the jury.
When Miss Parsons was retained to defend her most notorious client, Mickey MacDonald, one of the latter’s relatives confided to a friend that it was partly because “so much has happened to Mickey that a little sentimental appeal in the shape of a woman lawyer might help, and certainly couldn’t harm.” MacDonald’s relatives, however, were taken aback when Vera Parsons conducted a completely unsentimental defense.
Vera Parsons became Mickey MacDonald’s lawyer after he had served five penitentiary terms, after he had spent forty days in the death cell awaiting execution for the murder of Jimmy Windsor, a Toronto horse player, at the latter’s family dinner table (a sentence later reversed by acquittal at a new trial), and at a time when he was under sentence for kidnapping and for the armed hijacking of a thirty-fivethousand-dollar truckload of liquor.
Her first service for MacDonald was obtaining a new trial on appeal to the Court of Appeal. MacDonald wanted
“Chance of error in murder cases is remote,” she says, and defends the death sentence
the lawyer who had won him the retrial to defend him then. From their first meeting MacDonald knew there would be nothing done in his favor except a thorough application of fact, probability and law. MacDonald started the interview with loud protestations of innocence and defiance of the police.
“Mr. MacDonald,” Vera Parsons commanded quietly, “let us look at the evidence.”
And look at the evidence she continued to do, bringing meteorologists to testify as to the darkness of the night, casting none too subtle doubt on the police methods and those of the crown, trying to show a reasonable doubt to which MacDonald might be entitled. The jury found him guilty and a sentence of fifteen years was again imposed. Miss Parsons took the case to the Court of Appeal, unsuccessfully, and to the Supreme Court of Canada, equally unsuccessfully. It was shortly after this final dismissal of the appeal that MacDonald made a sensational escape from Kingston Penitentiary. He has never officially been seen again.
When Vera Parsons addressed her underworld, slang-talking client as “Mr. MacDonald” it was not an affectation. It was part of an instinctive manner toward clients which serves to make them feel that before the court they possess a dignity and a right to be respected, at any rate as far as she is concerned. Some lawyers dealing with a witness or client with a long, difficult foreign name are apt to stumble jocosely over it. Miss Parsons takes great pains to learn the correct pronunciation of the names of the people she is to deal with in court or outside; this is a trait that makes her greatly admired and respected by long-suffering, long-named new Canadians.
This sense of courtesy is perhaps the one point at which Vera Parsons’ pri-
vate life and public life touch, and is a legacy of the days when her first job was to help newcomers to Canada feel at home. For she did not come to law directly. The daughter of an executive of the Robert Simpson Co., she attended private schools in Toronto, graduated in modern languages from the University of Toronto, took her MA at Bryn Mawr, and went on to the University of Rome for a doctorate degree in comparative literature.
In Rome she lived in Sacramantini Convent. Her studies interested her and for a time she was happy in the ancient and beautiful city. But after a year she felt herself in a backwater, cut off from active, vital living. She decided to return home without her final degree.
The crown attorney said no
Back in Toronto she found her most useful immediate asset was the ability to speak Italian. A settlement house had just been opened in the heart of the immigrant district, and she volunteered for the job of helping Italian families adjust to the new country. Soon she became an institution in the Italian community.
But Vera Parsons herself often felt far from adequate. The feeling came to a head one day when a kerchiefed Italian mother came to her in tears. Her daughter had run away from home and had been charged with vagrancy. Would Miss Parsons please come to court and speak for her?
When they reached the courtroom the case had already been disposed of, by sending the girl to jail. Miss Parsons approached the crown attorney and said she would like to say something on behalf of the girl, especially as there had been no defense lawyer. He refused, saying the case was closed. Miss Parsons thought the procedure
highly improper, but she realized that only a lawyer would have known how to act for the girl without getting “pushed around.”
It suddenly occurred to Vera Parsons that there was an answer: become a lawyer—a criminal lawyer, since it was apparent that it was. in that branch of law that most people were “pushed around.” She enrolled at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, and applied to be articled to the late W. B. Horkins, who had more criminal cases than any other lawyer in the province. He accepted her, perhaps for the novelty of working with Ontario’s first woman criminal lawyer. But when three years later, in 1924, she graduated with the class Silver Medal and the Christopher Robinson Memorial Scholarship (a present judge of the Ontario Court of Appeal took the Bronze Medal), Horkins made her a junior partner. She brought her own basic clientele, a large Italian following.
Having earned the right to speak in court, Vera Parsons makes full use of it. After she had examined every facet of one case before a Supreme Court of Ontario jury, her opposite number, Crown Attorney William O. Gibson, commented, “Miss Parsons’ client should be everlastingly indebted to her. I have only heard one other speech as long as hers today in the last fifteen years.”
She not only has her say regardless of the court’s disposition to hear it, but seriously advises young lawyers to do likewise. Many a case is lost in appeal court, she maintains, because a lawyer abandons an excellent argument as soon as one of the judges shows some sign of disagreeing with it. “The other four judges, listening quietly, may thoroughly agree with you,” she points out.
Her position on the question of capital punishment has surprised fellow lawyers who know her as one who will go to extremes to defend criminals. At a meeting of the Canadian Bar Association last winter she was one of a small minority who voted against abolition of capital punishment, and argued her case vigorously. “The possibility of error in murder convictions,” she asserted, “is extremely remote.”
Perhaps the most important gift Vera Parsons can pass on to a young lawyer is her unswerving respect for the law. A graduate who articled with her put it this way: “It’s pretty disheartening to come out of Osgoode, where you’ve learned the high principles of law, and immediately get into what most young lawyers must—the messy dirty business of petty crime and vice. Then you come in contact with Miss Parsons’ high-principled approach to the law, even in the most sordid cases, and it gives you new courage to go out and become a good lawyer, too.”
But even a good lawyer, no matter how dedicated to the law, must occasionally escape the wearing demands of the courtroom. Perhaps Vera Parsons is happiest in those summer months when, the courts closed and a trip to Europe decided against for that particular year, she goes up to her island camp at Temagami in northern Ontario. Sometimes with a few friends, most often alone, she can relax completely with courts, clients and law remote and forgotten. But visiting friends can recall one emergency in which she hastily and effectively summoned her most imperious courtroom manner. There was a noise at the back door and Miss Parsons investigated. A large black bear stood there. Lawyer and bear stared at each other for a long moment, then the lawyer spoke coldly:
“Go on away from here.”
The bear turned and beat it hastily into the bush, if