Sunday, August 11, 2013

Who Killed Betty Belshaw?

It is impossible to reach the conclusion that Cyril Belshaw killed his wife ... One day the murderer will be known and you will be relieved and proud to have acquitted Cyril Belshaw."     ---Eric Stoudmann,  defence lawyer  for Cyril Belshaw, in his summation at  trial.

Back in the late 1970s Beryl Young suggested to her friend, Victoria writer Ellen Godfrey, that she write a book about the sensational murder  trial of celebrated UBC Anthropology professor, Cyril Belshaw. The result was By Reason of Doubt: The Belshaw Case (Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin, 1981).  I have just finished this book, and can heartily recommend it as an interesting treatment of how a mountain of apparently inculpatory evidence-- the supposed disappearance of a wife in Paris (though nobody  was found who could definitively swear that they saw her there) , the husband leaving for Vancouver  without searching for his wife in Switzerland, a deceased wife's mangled corpse turning up within driving distance of the husband's Swiss residence,  and the deliberate alteration of her dental records by the husband -- can, through resolute insistence by the defendant  concerning his own innocence, support from the accused's friends and relatives, re-consideration of facts through inter-cultural and Swiss legal lenses, and one or two arguably exculpatory facts -- lead to an acquittal.  Not the pure "not-guilty" verdict, however--which is provided for in Swiss law, though not in our own--but by reason of doubt.

Thirty years later, we can ask whether advances in forensics, such as DNA analysis, would have led to a different conclusion.  We can also ask whether, even by the standards of the day, a less well-heeled suspect would have escaped conviction under the same circumstances. And it is always interesting to ask whether the Swiss legal system, which initially looked stacked against the accused, ultimately worked in his favour.

But most of all, it is interesting to ask, after thirty years of this cold case, and advances in DNA testing, whether we can  ultimately answer the question once and for all: Who Killed Betty Belshaw?