11 February 2018

A Voice for the Dead

by Mary Fernando

“I don't believe it, and none of us believe it.”[1]

That was the response to the police assessment of murder-suicide from one friend of billionaires Honey and Barry Sherman. This was followed by a chorus of agreement from many prominent Canadians, and subsequently by an expensive independent investigation which resulted in a revised new assessment of double murder.

Leigh Lundin asked me to look at this now high-profile Canadian crime being played out, blow by blow, in the news. So here I am looking at it. But with Canadian eyes.

Honey and Barry Sherman
Honey and Barry Sherman
My question isn't about what happened in this particular crime. I feel confident that it will play out in the investigation, and that the truth will emerge. My question is this: What would happen if a family disagreed, but did not have powerful friends or the money to conduct their own investigation? What if the family were poor, but still vehemently in disagreement? What if a murderer was on the cusp of getting away with it? Who would stop them? 


I brought this up with Dr. Coroner – not his real name but it would be a good one, because he is indeed a coroner. He is called in if a death occurs outside a hospital, and occasionally in it. His job is essentially to assess the manner and cause of death. Is this death natural, an accident, a suicide or a homicide?

The body can be photographed but cannot be touched until he is finished his assessment and releases the body. He looks at the story, told by the body, of the manner and timing of death. There is also the story told by the place of death, and the question for him is whether it is consistent with the story the body tells.

My question: If the family disagreed with a murder-suicide verdict, but were neither educated or moneyed – what would he do? What if the family was unable to articulate a story as well as the friends and family of the Shermans? What if they were angry and threatening, or in general made themselves unsympathetic?

He said often his job is to help reconcile the disbelief with the reality. Some counselling is often part of what he does with families.

Also, he argues that marriage – by the nature of the long term relationship – can lead people to kill each other, even if they look to others like they are happy. Marriage itself can be the reason for murder.

Those caveats aside, Dr. C. said there was enough from the story of the “murder-suicide” of the Shermans to make him suspicious, largely because the story is wrong. Domestic murder is often more violent, angry. Hanging is not what he would expect as a means of murder or suicide in this case. Hanging is more often seen in cases of mental illness or extreme distress. Further, why would a man who has copious drugs available to him choose this manner of death for himself and his wife?

If the stories of the body, manner of death and family assessment make Dr. C. suspicious in any way, he has many options to augment the evidence he gathers.
  • The authority of the coroner overrides privacy of information, so he can seize records from sources such as the family doctor, psychiatrists, and psychologists. This could provide a more fulsome picture.
  • He can seize all radiological and dental records, to see if there is evidence of previous abuse.
  • He can order a post mortem, or a forensic autopsy and refuse to complete the death certificate or even provide the funeral home with a warrant to bury, until he is fully satisfied.
Ultimately, the story must hang together. Regardless of the ability of the family to articulate their concerns, or their resources to investigate on their own, Dr. C. relies on having a coherent story told by the manner of death, the body, the family and the records seized. If there are inconsistencies – then a further investigation is warranted.

If a family were unable to mount the same vigorous objection and investigation as the Shermans have, it could be the coroner who stands between the constructed truth of the murderer and the actual truth of the victim.

Ultimately, all crime writing is social justice writing. And the poor have a voice – the coroner. The story of the body, uncovering the life lived, the manner of death, might be the key to catching a murderer. The background knowledge and tenacity of the coroner is what most of us rely on when our bank accounts are meagre.

Dr. C. said that the job of the coroner is to provide a voice for the dead, to listen carefully to the story they tell. This is the first step towards social justice for those without money and connections. They do this by asking the simple question:
Does the story of this death make sense?

9 comments:

janice law said...

An interesting piece, especially your presentation of the coroner's work as finding a story. I suspect that need for a coherent story is not only important in the scientific sense but also in the sometimes unscientific story that family, friends, and perpetrator want to tell too.

Leigh Lundin said...

You make several excellent points both for readers and writers.

I had friends who police say died in a botched suicide pact. Neither the son nor I believed that.

Some years ago, I was driving through a predominantly black neighborhood in south Orlando. Above me loomed a large billboard picturing a pretty blonde girl and offering a sizeable award for information about her abductor, thanks to her wealthy parents. Meanwhile, how many black children without rich kin or business/political connections receive the same attention?

mary fernando said...

Janice - Absolutely. In medicine the story matters. The best doctors diagnose on the basis of a coherent story. I had no idea the coroner uses stories as well - but it makes sense. As you point out, it is essential for everyone - those who construct and those who are telling the truth.

Leigh - My hero - you suggested this and, as always, fix whatever mistakes I have to publish it!

But this time you asked about this story and it got me thinking as well.

It is intriguing. How justice is entwined with privilege. And yes, privilege allows a billboard. Wow.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Good, informative article. Thanks for posting this.

Eve Fisher said...

Years ago, my husband and I lived in a very poor neighborhood, with a fire station in the middle of it. One night there was a terrible house fire. The fire station got there late. A mother and son died in the house. Two other children were safe, staying with relatives. The fire was ruled accidental - started by a space heater in the basement. The deaths were ruled accidental. Many of us in the neighborhood believed that it was murder/arson by the ex. But there was no one to push that narrative along, so the case was never opened.

R.T. Lawton said...

Mary, thanks for a great article.

A haste to judgement can make all the difference if someone is pushing for a decision, or conversely, if no one is pushing back on the decision made.

Elizabeth said...

Have you seen the movie Reversal of Fortune with Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bulow, Glenn Close as his wife Sunny von Bulow who just died after being in a coma for about 30 years, & Ron Silver as attorney Alan Dershowitz. Sunny's children blamed Claus for injecting her with insulin though she was not diabetic & hired a law firm to see that he was prosecuted for attempted murder! Claus hired Dershowitz, who normally represented poor ppl, to defend him because a rich man is entitled to justice the same as a poor man would be.

Anonymous said...

This appeared just today:

http://www.foxnews.com/world/2018/02/02/cousin-murdered-canadian-billionaire-says-fantasized-about-decapitating-him.html

mary fernando said...

O'Neil - Thank you!
Eve - That is a horrible story. I suspect it is one of many...
R.T. - Exactly. I was fortunate enough to interview a coroner to see if he would be one voice to push back. i would hope there would be others. But I suspect that rich/poor plays out more than we would like.
Elizabeth- No I haven't. I think rich and poor and all in-between deserve justice. And in the Sherman case, they were able to bring considerable expertise to the table. I would do the same if it were my family and I had those resources. We all would.
Anonymous - !