Strange and contradictory testimony

MARCUS GEE September 21 1987

Strange and contradictory testimony

MARCUS GEE September 21 1987

Strange and contradictory testimony

It was, to say the least, a bizarre performance. Roy Newman Ebsary had been summoned before a royal commission in Sydney, N.S., to tell what he knew about the killing of a young black man, Sandford Seale, in a Sydney park 16 years ago. In a case that has come to symbolize some of the failings of the Canadian justice system, Seale’s companion, Micmac Indian Donald Marshall, was wrongfully convicted of the crime and spent 11 years in prison.

After Marshall was exonerated in 1983, suspicion settled on Ebsary. Ebsary, 75, served one year in jail for Seale’s killing after being convicted of manslaughter in 1985. But during two days of erratic testimony last week, the white-haired former psychiatric patient denied killing Seale. At one point Ebsary claimed that God had spoken to him. At another, he startled Marshall’s lawyer, Clayton Ruby, by first challenging him to a duel and then appearing to flirt with him. Said Ebsary:

“Put your shoes under my bed and you’ll achieve immortality.”

Ebsary’s antics often provoked laughter from the crowd of 100 that packed a Sydney church basement to watch the proceedings. But the three inquiry commissioners made it clear that their purpose was serious. The commission’s first task, said commission counsel George MacDonald, was to find out what happened on the misty May night in 1971 when Seale and Marshall encountered Ebsary and a companion in Sydney’s Wentworth Park. But their mandate is much broader than that. The commission’s chairman, Alexander Hickman, chief justice of the Newfoundland Supreme Court, said its ultimate aim was “to make recommendations that will ensure that the unfortunate events surrounding Mr. Marshall will not be repeated. To do this, we must satisfy ourselves that the present state of the administration of justice in Nova Scotia is sound.”

Established by the Nova Scotia government after years of public pressure, Hickman’s inquiry is only the latest in a long series of attempts to resolve the tangled Marshall case. Said MacDonald: “It is our hope that

this is the last time this matter has to be investigated.”

Unravelling the mystery of Seale’s murder will be difficult. The stories of the principal players are wildly con-

tradictory. Marshall always denied killing Seale, but he was convicted at his 1971 trial on the testimony of three key teenage witnesses who said he commited the crime. Ten days after Marshall’s conviction, Ebsary’s companion, James MacNeil, came forward

with a different story. He told police that Ebsary had killed Seale after Seale and Marshall approached the pair in the park and demanded money. Despite this new evidence, it took two RCMP investigations and an order from the federal minister of justice to secure a new trial for Marshall.

Ebsary’s testimony last week did little to solve the puzzle. He told the commission that, although he had taken a swipe at Marshall and Seale with a knife, he did not seriously wound either of them. But MacDonald challenged that story. He played a video tape made in 1984 by a friend of Ebsary’s daughter, which showed Ebsary re-enacting the murder. In it, Ebsary kills Seale with a knife thrust to the abdomen. Ebsary dismissed the tape as “playacting.” Later in the week, however, MacNeil contradicted his companion. “I know who killed Sandy Seale,” he said. “Roy Ebsary.” The commission intends to 5 call at least 40 more witnesses § during the first phase of its inquiry. The second phase is expected to start in Halifax by late November. The commissioners will investigate a number of delicate questions. Among them: did racism play a role in Marshall’s original arrest and conviction? Did police pressure the teenage witnesses into lying about the case? Did authorities withhold evidence that might have prevented Marshall’s conviction? And should there be new guidelines for the presentation of new evidence after a conviction?

Several groups are represented at the inquiry, which will cost an estimated $2.3 million. They include the Black United Front and the Union of Nova Scotia Indians. But Marshall himself, although he is scheduled to testify, did not attend last week’s hearings. Friends said that the shy Micmac Indian prefers to avoid the public scrutiny that he has experienced since the case gained national attention in 1982. For Marshall, who turned 34 this month, the Hickman inquiry may be the final chance to clear his name once and for all and put his lost years behind him.