A botched murder investigation. Check
A prime suspect painted with a bullseye by police afflicted with tunnel vision. Check
A dubious eyewitness who identifies the suspect with certainty at trial. Check
An overzealous prosecutor who would go to any length to get a conviction. Check
Sound familiar? The prosecution of Mark Stobbe follows the blueprint for a wrongful conviction exactly as writ large in a series of public inquiries in Manitoba in recent years.
The only difference is that in those inquiries (Sophonow, Driskell, Unger) the juries convicted the accused on the evidence presented to them, and it was the NDP government that had to concoct reasons, such as those above, to toss the guilty verdicts, hold staged show trials to exonerate the convicted men on bogus grounds, and pay millions in compensation (except for a surprised Kyle Unger who got nothing.)
In the case of Mark Stobbe, the egregious behaviour of police and prosecutors was real, not invented. It didn't fool the jury, which acquitted him. And we'll bet that the NDP won't pay him a discontinued penny in compensation for ruining his life.
But there's one undisputed fact---there has to be a public inquiry into how this mess ever got to trial.
The Manitoba Justice branch hides behind the argument that this was a "circumstantial" case in which people could disagree on the grey areas.
The trial of Mark Stobbe was not a circumstantial case. It was a contrived fantasy from start to finish.
Here's an example of the prosecution's definition of "circumstantial":
Beverley Rowbotham was killed with an axe.
Mark Stobbe owned an axe.
They showed the jury a picture of an axe.
It wasn't the axe used to kill Beverley Rowbotham.
That axe was never found.
Stobbe must be guilty.
How did the killer get away after leaving the car with Beverley Rowbotham's body in the back seat?
Uh, maybe he rode a bicycle.
Or maybe not, since there's nothing to indicate he did.
Anyway, there were two bicycles in Stobbe's garage. They showed the jury a picture of the bicycles.
They couldn't say if either of those bicycles was used in the getaway.
Maybe that was another bicycle....which was never found.
Some motorists saw a really fat person on a bicycle on the road the night Beverley Rowbotham was killed. Or maybe it was several different people on different bikes.
Not that anyone can say the person or people on bicycles had any connection whatsoever with the abandoned car.
One witness was certain he saw Mark Stobbe in the driver's seat of the parked car with the dead body in the back. At least that was before he said it wasn't Mark Stobbe, it might not have been the same car or the same night. And the person he saw may have been a woman.
But Mark Stobbe is really fat, like the cyclist seen by the other motorists.
A fat RCMP officer rode a bicycle 8 or 12 miles and didn't die.(Nobody could agree how far it was from where Beverley Rowbotham was killed and where her body was dumped.)
Obviously, committing murder turns a fat, pencil-pushing civil servant into an Olympics-ready bike racer who could give Clara Hughes a run for her money.
Stobbe must be guilty.
A circumstantial case is built on facts that lead a listener to make inferences which link the elements of the case and lead to a conclusion. The Stobbe trial was built on wild guesses (a bicycle, yeah, that's how he got away) that required the jury to make bizarre leaps of faith (why didn't he hear her screams for help? what screams? never mind.).
But this wasn't a game. It wasn't a joke. This wasn't a one-hour episode of a cop show "torn from the headlines." It was real life.
The Crown attorney, seconded from British Columbia, wanted to send Mark Stobbe to prison for the rest of his life on evidence so weak it was criminal to put it before a jury.
That's the question that must be answered if there's to be any faith in the justice system in Manitoba.
Beverley Rowbotham was killed Oct. 24, 2000. She was attacked in her back yard and hit with a hatchet 15 times in the head. She was dragged or carried to her car which was parked in her garage and a 16th blow was delivered with the axe. The car was driven from the house in St. Andrews to nearby Selkirk and abandoned in a business parking lot. It was discovered about 7 hours later.
RCMP immediately fixed their attention on her husband, Mark Stobbe to the exclusion of other possible suspects. They followed him to catch him disposing of bloody clothes or the murder weapon. They tapped his phone. They collected his DNA. Only 3 weeks after the murder, RCMP had completed what they considered their case against Mark Stobbe.
Because Stobbe worked for the Manitoba government (as a speechwriter), Manitoba Justice officials felt that to avoid any allegations of conflict of interest all decisions about charging him should be made by another jurisdiction. On Nov. 14, 2000, RCMP presented their case to Alberta prosecutors.
(Kudos to Kevin Rollason for an excellent story Friday on the RCMP's dealings with prosecutors prior to any charges being laid.
His story fills in many of the blanks.)
One week after getting the file, Alberta responded. 'You have no case', they told the Manitoba RCMP.
Deflated but undaunted, investigators kept at it. To rattle Stobbe they released false information that Rowbotham's shoes were missing (they weren't; they were off her feet but in the car). They listened to 1000 hours of his phone calls. They enlisted Rowbotham's sisters to help. RCMP told them, not Stobbe, that Rowbotham was killed in her back yard. When a sister phoned Stobbe, you can bet they were listening for him to confess. He didn't.
Iin early April, 2002, investigators met with Alberta justice officials to pitch their case again. Again, a rejection. In September, 2002, the assistant chief prosecutor in Alberta wrote to Manitoba authorities and said the file had been reviewed by four Crown lawyers by then and all agreed the RCMP did not have enough evidence even to charge Stobbe with the murder of his wife, never mind get a conviction.
For reasons that need to be explained in a public inquiry, the RCMP simply kept throwing the Stobbe file at prosecutors even though they had no new evidence.
They went back to Manitoba Justice officials (no dice), they sent the case to their historical case unit (the RCMP refuses to call them cold cases), and somebody (the Manitoba Crown attorneys or the RCMP) decided to go the equivalent of judge shopping. They couldn't count on Alberta prosecutors to give them the go ahead, so in November, 2007, they took the case to the British Columbia prosecutions branch.
And, bingo. B.C. said 'go get 'im.' In May, 2008, RCMP arrested Mark Stobbe and charged him with murder.
There's so much of this story that can only be revealed through a public inquiry.
* Why were Manitoba RCMP fixated on Mark Stobbe?
* What was in the case that Alberta prosecutors rejected? How did that case differ from what they put forward in court, and which was rejected in turn by a jury?
* Why did British Columbia approve charges against Stobbe? Did B.C. prosecutors know the same case had been reviewed in Alberta? Did they see the official letters sent by Alberta to Manitoba Justice?
* Rollason wrote that a Manitoba court was told the B.C. Crown attorney who gave the okay on a murder charge was "sick and can no longer give "meaningful information." What's that mean? Sick as in dying? Alzheimers? Was it a female attorney who allowed her sympathy for a murdered wife to overrule her reason on a case with no implicating evidence?
* A preliminary hearing was held in Manitoba in April, 2010 before Judge John Guy, a former prosecutor years back. Why did he allow the case to go forward when a first-year law student could tell you the Crown had zero evidence against Mark Stobbe?
These questions only scratch the surface of a malicious prosecution that must be thoroughly dissected if justice in Manitoba is not to be brought into disrepute.
- The public must hear from the RCMP officers who first investigated the Rowbotham murder, who set their sights on her husband and refused to look elsewhere.
- We must hear from the four Alberta prosecutors who saw the defects in the case ten years ago.
- We need to hear from Judge John Guy, on why his judicial opinion to send the case to trial was so off, and whether there was any political interference?
- We need to nail down why the British Columbia Crown had a different view of the case from their Alberta counterparts.
- We need to hear from the RCMP's cold case investigators how they spun the evidence after they got the file.
- And we need to hear from the Manitoba Attorney General how this travesty of justice could have happened in this province under his watch?
The time is now. Memories are still relatively fresh. Witnesses haven't died. Letters can be retrieved easily. Emails are still saved.
Of course, in Manitoba, calling an inquiry is no guarantee of anything.
Brian Sinclair died in hospital waiting room in September, 2008. An inquest was called in 2009 and there's no sign of when it will start.
The province ordered an inquiry in 2006 into the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair at the hands of her mother and step-father. It might start this year. Or it might not.
The first and only complaint ever filed under the Manitoba Whistleblower Act was made to the Ombudsman's office in December, 2008 by a Manitoba Hydro consultant. Ombudsman Irene Hamilton sat on the file for 3 years without issuing any report on it, then took another government job this January. A new ombudsman hasn't been hired yet.
Tomorrow: Other suspects in the Rowbotham murder case.