Last week, in the Winnipeg Law Courts Building, time wheeled back all the way to 1959 when, in the early hours of June 2, RCAF electrician John Down’s naked body, head in a flower bed, was found sprawled in front of his Parkhill Street home. Not until Jan. 22,1981, were Down’s widow, Katie Harper, 48, and her second and now estranged husband, Sandy Harper, 63, jointly charged with first-degree murder.
The trial opened and lurched slowly onward with arguments between counsel and Mr. Justice Guy Kroft, which the jury of seven men and five women was not permitted to hear. They had to troop in and out of their places in the gloomy, grey-marbled courtroom, where the drone of ceiling fans made much of what they were allowed to hear all but inaudible. Then, once the careful legal plow-work was completed, dapper Crown counsel George Dangerfield set out to prove that the Winnipeg couple wanted the 24-year-old Down out of their lives. They “executed a coldblooded, deliberate murder,” he said, by feeding Down a “massive overdose of a sleeping drug,” then smothering the unconscious man and dumping his body
out of a second-storey dormer window.
Retired RCMP corporal Cletis A’hearn, who had been a constable when sent to investigate Down’s death 22 years ago, read Katie Harper’s statement to the court. He chronicled the adventures of a troubled Saskatchewan nurse named Katie Balzer, who had already borne one child out of wedlock and was befriended by Down after her first love had been killed on leave from Korea. Katie Balzer became Katie Down, and the newlyweds moved to Winnipeg. There, the relationship slowly crumbled despite the birth of two daughters, until, in Katie’s account, Down was troubled by nerves and outbursts of temper. Homesick for his family in Newfoundland, he began making increasingly frequent sexual demands on 25-year-old Katie. Her statement declared: “It was not unusual for him to want intercourse three or four times a day. He was large, and this caused me discomfort. I refused a number of times and this caused trouble.”
Domestic pressures drove her into an affair with another man—a friend whose own wife was ill. A’hearn’s reports show that Katie believed her hus-
band was unaware of her encounters with the man, some of which took place in a car on her way home from shiftwork at Winnipeg’s Deer Lodge Hospital. She went to see RCA F medical officer Dr. Eric Kent, who told the court that Katie was “depressed and anxious” and complained that “she had been sexually abused by her husband.” His treatment included prescriptions for Sodium Amytal, the barbiturate used to drug Down.
About a month and a half before Down’s death, she “struck up an association” with a Deer Lodge orderly, 40year-old Alexander (Sandy) Harper, and told A’hearn: “As far as I know, John didn’t know I was running around with Sandy.” Together, the Crown alleges, the couple eliminated the husband, “considered an obstacle to their continued association.” Katie told A’hearn that Down “had nothing on, and I ran in and got a coat and covered him and ran over to the neighbors and asked them to phone the police and I thought John was dead.”
Defence counsels Hersh Wolch, acting for Katie Harper, and Harper’s attorney, David Margolis, will not begin to detail their clients’ cases until the Crown has called an estimated 33 witnesses. But some facts are already puzzling. In the first place, the exact cause of John Down’s death has never been determined. As former Winnipeg General Hospital pathologist Dr. H.T.G. Strawbridge testified: “It was an odd case. We were never desperately [sic] satisfied.”
Strawbridge found pinpoint hemorrhages on the upper part of Down’s larynx, superficial neck bruises and a tear in the liver, and concluded at the 1959 inquest that Down died from the combined effects of the barbiturates and the fall from the window. “I think that the level of the barbiturate Sodium Amytal would seriously compromise the victim,” he said last week, “and any subsequent pressure on the neck and nasal passage would contribute to [his] demise.” But he stressed that the level of Amytal in the blood (two milligrams per 100 ml) was not, according to medical literature, a lethal dose.
The trial is expected to be long, with lawyers already placing bets that it will not be over until spring. It will clearly be an extraordinary test of the co-accused’s stamina, the more so since they have not spoken to each other for years. Each morning last week Katie Harper, always clad in a neat blazer and pleated skirt, and her thin, stooped husband filed separately into Courtroom 1 and took their seats. Never looking at each other, they stared straight ahead, their strangely star-crossed lives unavoidably linked for as long as the trial lasts.
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