History 3850 First Term Assignment

History 3850 First Term Assignment

R. v. Geary Barrett

Prince Albert, Saskatchewan 1908 regarding the death of Burnell Johnstone, on October 27 1907.

On October 27, 1907, ten-year-old Burnell Johnstone died after being shot in the arm by his stepfather, Geary (George) Barrett. Johnstone did not die immediately but twelve days after the incident and after much discussion among the doctors about how to treat him. The problem was that the bullet had severed an artery in Johnstone’s  arm and the doctors were unable to stop the bleeding, though they rejected several other options which might have saved the boy’s life. Regardless, his stepfather, Barrett was charged with murder. The trial was held in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan,  in June 1908. Prince Albert is located north of Saskatoon in northern Saskatchewan.

[NOTE: One of our former Prime Ministers, John G. Diefenbaker, was a defense lawyer there during the 1930s and 1940s and another Prime Minister, MacKenzie King, briefly represented the riding in the House of Commons].

Using the trial record, write a 2000-to-3000-word essay stating why you believe Barrett is guilty of murder, or guilty of manslaughter, or innocent of both charges, or cannot be held accountable for his actions as he was mentally insane at the time when he shot his stepson.

In writing your essay, you must adopt the position of the Crown Prosecutor or of the Defense lawyer. However, given that this is a capital case file, if you adopt the position of the Crown Prosecutor you must argue that Barrett is guilty of murder as that was the position of the Crown during the trial. If you are the defense attorney, you may adopt any of the other positions.

In your essay you must point specifically to the relevant section of the Criminal Code. A copy of the Revised Statutes in on the Assignment page.


Please use footnotes the first time you refer to the trial. The proper format would be the following:   

Ottawa, Library and Archives of Canada, RG 13: vol. 1453, file 395A, Trial Transcript, p. ????

Thereafter put brackets around the relevant page numbers at the end of a sentence or paragraph where you are referring to a specific passage in the trial, (p. 33 or whatever the page is)

Be warned that in some places the transcript is difficult to read but also extraordinary. See for example, the testimony of Burnell’s sister, Clara May, who was nine years old.  (pp. 44- 62) and Ethel Margaret, who was six (pp. 62-75    ). Their testimony is critical as what they say and what their stepfather says is very different.

Geary Barrett says that the shooting was an accident yet the two girls say that it was deliberate. They also make statements indicating that their stepfather was angry, threatening to kill their mother moments before their brother was shot.  As a result, the task of determining what is true and what is not is difficult. However, as best as you can, make reasonable conclusions based on your reading of the evidence.

Unlike the jury you do not have the ability to closely examine the witnesses. You don’t know anything about them which might help to determine whether you believe them. For instance, Geary would have been known in Prince Albert. There would have been some gossip about him and his reputation. This undoubtedly would have impacted how the jury evaluated his words. Your job therefore is more difficult, trying to sort out what is reasonable to believe based on what you can reasonably know to be true.

Are there reasons to not believe the witnesses? For instance, you might ask was there any reason why the girls would lie? Did they understand what would happen to their stepfather if they lied? What about Geary Barrett? Is there any suggestion that he was lying? And of course, there were more compelling reasons why he would lie. Certainly, one might reasonably assume Geary’s story that the gun went off accidently. However, his story and the girls’ story about the moments before the gunshot are completely at odds. Is that possible?  or why might the girls have mis-remembered what happened?  Yet, his testimony regarding what he said to the Sergeant-Major is also inconsistent with what the officer said, or remembered what he said. (see Barrett’s testimony, pp. 101-02).

Indeed, the further we get into the transcript the more curious the family’s storyl becomes.

 Barrett had been married before. In 1908, he is 56 years old. He was originally from Detroit, Michigan. He had been married thirty years before, had ten children but had left his wife in 1892. They had not been divorced and his wife was still living. (pp. 104-08). Notice how he defines marriage. In February, 1906 he married Burnell’s mother (p. 108)  who he had met in Heber City, Utah. She is, he said, a Mormon and he became a Mormon before they were married (p. 121). Certainly the Prosecution uses this to paint Geary as immoral and a man not to be trusted. Yet, he also makes accusations against his current wife and her motivations. Is it possible to sort this out?  


Note as well the testimony about the gun. Barrett says it fired accidently. (see p. 84 and a more extensive discussion is on pp. 121-3)

All of this illustrates the complexity of the case. On the one hand, the Prosecution relies on the testimony of the two young children while the accused says that they were lying. 

Then there is the added complication of the poor medical assistance Burnell received. We might wonder, for instance, if he had been treated properly he might have lived. However, that is beside the point since his stepfather’s actions can be judged to be culpable. What I mean by this is that Barrett could be said to have acted recklessly and should have reasonably known that his actions could result in someone’s death or cause them grievous bodily harm. And so, even if Burnell had not died, Geary might have been held criminally responsible for wounding his stepson. On that basis, you have to decide if he did or did not act recklessly.

You can, however, also argue that he did act recklessly but was provoked and therefore cannot be found guilty of murder, but manslaughter and there is evidence to suggest that might have been provoked but since the Defense relied on Barrett’s testimony that the gun went off accidently, this did not become a major issue at trial as it might have been. The Defense lawyer was attempting to get his client off and believed what Geary (or so we have to believe) had told him, i.e. that the gun went off accidently.

Or you can argue that at the time he acted recklessly, he was insane.

Finally, note the use of offensive language on p. 83 and p.106.

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