After seven weeks of testimony one fact is crystal clear---authorities don't have a shred of evidence against Mark Stobbe for the murder of his wife Beverley Rowbotham.
When the trial started, Crown attorney Wendy Dawson painted a horrific picture for the jury. A woman--a loving wife and a mother of two young sons--- butchered in her back yard. A heartless killer stuffing her bloody body into her car and abandoning both like garbage in a dark and empty parking lot miles away. A trail of circumstantial evidence leading straight to her husband. Dedicated police investigators ripping away the mantle of grieving spouse to expose the maniacal killer inside.
She was going to produce a mountain of indisputable evidence to build the circumstantial case---videotape, eyewitnesses, photos, charts, audio tests to prove that a woman's screams from the backyard could be heard in Stobbe's living room where he said he was watching a baseball game as his wife was being slaughtered.
There was even a bloody glove. Shades of O.J. Simpson.
She reveled in sheer numbers: 76 witnesses, 16 murderous blows to the head with an axe, hundreds of drops of blood and shards of bone found in the back yard and the garage.
And when it was over, the jury was asked to send Mark Stobbe to prison for life because---HE WAS FAT.
No, that's not a bad joke. That turned out to be the crux of the case against him.
It turns out that the Everest of evidence the Crown had collected proved only one thing---that Bev Rowbotham was murdered in October, 2000. There wasn't a hint of who killed her and absolutely nothing to implicate her husband.
The entire case against him turned on a series of motorists who said they saw a fat man on a bicycle on the road between Selkirk and St. Andrews during the time Beverley Rowbotham was killed and the time her body was discovered. And, hey, Mark Stobbe is fat. So he must be the killer, eh. Never mind that there was no evidence that the person on the bike was connected to the Rowbotham car in any way.
That circumstantial piece of the puzzle was supposed to be provided by witness Gary Beaton who testified the day before the February long weekend that he saw a man "slumped" behind the wheel of a parked car in Selkirk in which police later found the beaten body of Stobbe's wife.
"That's him," declared Beaton, pointing to Stobbe in court in a dramatic moment worthy of every episode of Perry Mason.
But that bold identification melted under cross-examination like ice in a highball in Cuba. Well, he told defence lawyer Tim Killeen, "that's him" didn't mean Mark Stobbe was the man at the wheel of the murder car. He only meant to say that he saw someone as large as Stobbe in the car. And maybe it wasn't even a man; it could have been a woman. After all, Beaton confessed, he wasn't wearing his glasses, he only glanced at the car for possibly 10 seconds, and he didn't tell police what he saw for another FOUR YEARS.
So, maybe, it wasn't even the same car.
The judge was so shocked at Beaton's testimony that he stepped in at the first opportunity to tell the jury essentially to disregard what they had just heard.
You may not know how unprecedented this move was.
Normally, a judge in a trial tries to act neutral. His only comment on the evidence of witnesses comes when he's telling the jury the rules they have to apply to reach a verdict, a process known as charging the jury. It's then he might explain the dangers of relying on eyewitness testimony without evidence that could corroborate it.
The judge in the Stobbe trial went far beyond that. He didn't even wait for the Crown to finish its case. He jumped right in to stop the jury from being contaminated by the witness.
"The case against Mr. Stobbe is circumstantial. You must be very cautious on relying on eyewitness testimony to find Mr. Stobbe guilty. In the past there have been miscarriages of justice, persons have been wrongfully convicted, because so-called eyewitnesses have made mistakes in identifying persons they believe responsible," said the judge as quoted in The Winnipeg Free Press.
He added Beaton's testimony was "very generic, very sparse." The Winnipeg Sun cited an even more damning denunciation from Mr. Justice Martin: “It is quite possible for an honest person to make a (mistaken) identification ... (Beaton) has never before suggested it was Mr. Stobbe he saw that night.”
And, just like that, the case boiled down to a fat man on a bicycle riding on the road in the rain in the dark on a cold October night. A man nobody could identify. Nor could they swear it wasn't a woman in a bulky coat. And neither could the police experts pinpoint the bicycle in question.
So, just how fat was Mark Stobbe the night his wife was murdered, anyway?
He's a big boy, but like most of us he was lighter 12 years ago than today. Still, he looks close to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford who was 320 pounds when he went on a public diet earlier this year.
The Crown insists Stobbe killed his wife in a murderous rage, dragged her body to one of his cars, lifted her into the back seat, put a bicycle in the trunk to be his getaway vehicle, drove the car to Selkirk, abandoned the car, took the bicycle out of the trunk, and rode it home, stopping occasionally to throw his wife's wallet and the axe into the nearby river.
Just how far is Selkirk from the former Stobbe home in St. Andrews? Newspapers have said it's 12 kilometres, 14 kilometres, 15 kilometres, and even 20 kilometres. That's anywhere from 7-and-a-half miles to 12 miles. A fat RCMP officer (actual weight unknown) rode the route on a bike and it took him 39 minutes.
Did desk jockey Mark Stobbe, at 300 pounds plus, wearing a heavy fall jacket, ride a bicycle all that way? Then attach a hose and wash away the blood in the back yard? Then calmly phone RCMP and his in-laws to report his wife missing?
Can you spell p-a-r-a-m-e-d-i-c-s-9-1-1?
At that weight he wouldn't be riding on bicycle wheels. He would be riding on the rims. You need a mountain bike or at least special tires and wheels reinforced with extra spokes to carry that weight. Not that it matters, since nobody could put Stobbe on a bicycle on the highway on the night of the murder.
So, as we said in the beginning? What the hell was this all about?
RCMP pegged him as the killer from the first day. Indeed, the first hours of the investigation. They followed him for days, if not weeks, or months. They tapped his phones and recorded more than 1000 hours of his calls. They released false information to the press to trick him into confessing something. They had his wife's sister phone him to pressure him into making an incriminating statement. They lied to him about finding his blood in the garage to get him to say something they could use against him.
The worst that they could tell the jury was that Mark Stobbe once actually acted foolishly by dancing in public to try and amuse his sons who were grieving the loss of their mother. Otherwise his reactions were the reactions of an innocent man.
Seven weeks of evidence amounted to a circumstantial case alright, a case of malicious prosecution.
Somebody will have to answer for that.