Author: Dick Holland
Editor: Ruth Sandwell
Series Editor: Roland Case
A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-16
In 1867-1868, a tiny community on Salt Spring (now spelled as one word, “Saltspring”) Island off the coast of British Columbia was the scene of three brutal and seemingly unconnected murders. The victims were members of the island’s African-American community. These African-Americans had fled persecution in California in 1858, but the murders fractured the community and drove many back to the United States. Aboriginal people were widely blamed for the murders, but in only one of the murders was someone charged and convicted.
William Robinson was one of the victims. His body was discovered in his cabin, several days after he had been shot in the back. An Aboriginal man, Tshuanahusset, was arrested many months later, convicted, and hanged. Some people felt that the trial was not fair.
If you looked at the evidence, would you be convinced (beyond a reasonable doubt) that Tshuanahusset killed William Robinson?
In this MysteryQuest you are invited to take on the role of a jury member at the trial of Tshuanahusset for the murder of William Robinson. You will examine key pieces of evidence presented at the trial. Your task is to answer the question, “Does the evidence provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Tshuanahusset committed the murder, as accused?”
In reaching your decision, you will first clarify the meaning of the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” and familiarize yourself with the events leading up to the trial and conviction of Tshuanahusset. You will read various documents to identify the evidence provided by a number of witnesses and classify it according to the different kinds of evidence presented in court. Based on your analysis of the credibility and adequacy of the evidence, you will reach your own conclusion about Tshuanahusset’s guilt or innocence.
STEP 1: Clarify proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”
To evaluate whether the evidence in the William Robinson murder trial gives you proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” you must be clear in your mind what this means. It refers to the level of certainty required to declare an accused person guilty of a crime. Different standards of proof are required by different courts in order to establish guilt/liability. Criminal courts demand the highest standard of proof of any court. This is because finding someone guilty can result in the loss of liberty and, in previous times, the loss of life. In order for an accused to be found guilty, the evidence must establish “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he or she is guilty. “Reasonable doubt” does not mean you are absolutely certain, but it does mean that the body of evidence is sufficiently convincing that you would be willing to rely upon this kind of proof without hesitation when making decisions in your own life. There must be no reasonable explanation for what happened other than that the accused did it. If there is any other reasonable explanation, the accused should not be found guilty.
STEP 2: Learn about the trial of Tshuanahusset
Your next task is to learn more about the events surrounding the murder and the trial. In the “Secondary documents” section of Evidence in the Case you will find three documents. Read these brief accounts written by the historians who created the website. These documents are called secondary sources.
STEP 3: Consider different types of evidence
Before evaluating the evidence brought against Tshuanahusset, it is useful to identify the kinds of evidence used to establish guilt or innocence. Below are brief explanations of four types of evidence that are commonly presented in criminal trials. These various kinds of evidence are evaluated differently — in other words, some evidence is more believable than others, as far as a court of law is concerned. The kinds of evidence are listed from the weakest (or least believable) to the strongest (or most believable):
Can you identify which kind of evidence is represented by each of the following?
If you are unsure whether you correctly identified each piece of evidence, or if you want to learn more about these kinds of evidence, please read Kinds of Evidence Offered in Court.
STEP 4: Examine the evidence
It is time now to examine some of the evidence presented at Tshuanahusset’s trial. In the “Primary documents” section of Evidence in the Case you will find six documents. These include testimony by the accused and by two witnesses, notes from the judge, and two newspaper accounts.
For each of these documents, complete the chart Locating and Labelling Evidence by providing the following information:
STEP 5: Question the evidence
After you have identified numerous pieces of evidence and classified the kinds of evidence presented in the six documents, summarize the main evidence you have compiled in a new chart Questioning the Evidence. Organize the evidence according to its kind, and then record possible questions or weaknesses for each piece of evidence. Think of the explanation for each kind of evidence to help you identify potential concerns about the reliability of the evidence provided. The following questions may also be of help to you in raising potential concerns about the evidence:
STEP 6: Justify your verdict
Does this evidence provide you with proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Tshuanahusset is guilty? Whether or not you have enough evidence, your task is to come to a conclusion about Tshuanahusset’s guilt or innocence. Indicate your conclusion on the scale (provided in the chart Questioning the Evidence) ranging from “Overwhelming proof beyond any doubt that he is guilty” to “He is definitely innocent.” Prepare a one paragraph “verdict” with at least four reasons explaining why the evidence provided does or does not provide you with proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Tshuanahusset killed William Robinson.
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Kinds of Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to identify the important and relevant evidence in the case from the six historical documents.
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Quality of Evidence may be used to assess your success in drawing conclusions about the evidence in the case and whether or not it proves that Tshuanahusset was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
What additional evidence would you need?
Describe the additional evidence you would need to conclude whether or not Tshuanahusset was guilty of the crime. List this evidence according to the four categories of evidence.
Prejudice in the justice system
As you know, William Robinson was African-American and Tshuanahusset was an Aboriginal man. Explore some of the documents within the section entitled Settler Society to understand whether or not racial background might have had any bearing on the case. You may also read the documents in the Whippings and Hangings section of the main website. Does this evidence convince you that the justice system in the colony of Vancouver Island was prejudiced against First Nations people?
Explore other challenges
Apply your detective skills to other mysteries associated with William Robinson’s murder. MysteryQuest 9 challenges you to explore the underlying social and institutional attitudes which may have influenced this historical event, while MysteryQuest 3 invites you to decide whether there is reason to suspect that Tshuanahusset did not receive a fair trial.
Activity Sheet: Locating and Labelling Evidence
Activity Sheet: Questioning the Evidence
Background Information: Kinds of Evidence Offered in Court
Attorney General’s files
Trial Judge’s notes