Thursday Thinkpiece: Ross Mackay–A Brilliant Criminal Lawyer

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Ross Mackay: A Brilliant Criminal Lawyer

Author: Jack Batten

ISBN: 9781988824390
Publisher: Durvile Publications
Page Count: 288
Publication Date: August 1, 2020
Regular Price: $29.95

Excerpt: Chapter 20 – On the Comeback Trail

The eighteen-year-old kid from Niagara Falls was pumped. It was the late summer of 1962, and he was on the brink of his life’s great adventure. He was soon to take the first step that would lead him to a career as a criminal lawyer. His father had wanted to live just such a life in the law, but his lousy financial circumstances trapped him in the family’s scrap metal business. The father died when the kid was just thirteen, and not long after his death, the kid read a book from his late dad’s library, Clarence Darrow For the Defence by Irving Stone. The book, a biography of America’s greatest criminal lawyer, took the kid’s breath away. The lawyer in the book was exactly the kind of person he wanted to be when he got older, a Clarence Darrow of Canada, defending accused people in court, speaking up for the downtrodden, punching holes in prosecution cases. That fall, he would start an arts course at the University of Toronto, then it would be on to Osgoode Hall Law School, a call to the Ontario bar and life in the criminal courts.

But before all of that unfolded, the kid needed to pull in a few bucks that would help with his up-coming university expenses by taking a job at the annual three-week Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. The job was in a booth in the CNE’s Food Building for an outfit called Abbott of England. Abbott peddled kitchen knives, and the kid’s assignment was to wield the knives with five other guys doing the same, standing in a row at the front of the Abbott booth, slicing celery sticks and carrots and onions, demonstrating for the passing throngs the wonders of Abbott knives, convincing the odd sucker to purchase one of the magical knives. It wasn’t much of a job, “the lowest job imaginable,” as the kid recollected years later, but he needed the money. The kid’s name was Eddie Greenspan.

The older guy standing next to Eddie in the booth demonstrating Abbott knives seemed a tragic figure to a young kid. This guy looked worn and tired, he spoke very little, he had a tremor in his hands, and he smelled of liquor.

“I was the worst knife seller in the booth,” Eddie said. “Except for the man beside me. He was the absolute worst. He couldn’t project, and he just wasn’t interested.”

Eddie asked the guy his name.

“Ross Mackay. I’m a criminal lawyer,” the guy answered. “You know the Lucas case? The Turpin case?”

“Of course,” Eddie answered. “They were yours?”

Ross nodded. “Both of them.”

Eddie was thrilled to be in near proximity to a real-life criminal lawyer, even if the meeting took place in such a bizarre place at such a strange time. And it seemed especially puzzling that this criminal lawyer seemed to be trying to steer Eddie away from criminal law. It became obvious to Eddie that Ross Mackay was someone at that moment as far down on his luck as a person could get.

Lil White’s gentle arm-twisting was what pushed Ross into the job, not specifically the job at the Ex, but any job that brought in some dollars. Lil and Della Burns had been carrying the financial load at the Spencer Avenue apartment. It was about time Ross chipped in on the rent and the groceries and the big bills for booze. The CNE took place on massive waterfront acreage a short walk from the apartment. Ross was still not ready to get back to his law practice, but he was willing to take any part-time job when he stumbled onto the Abbott booth and signed up to slice celery stalks and hawk knives.

Eddie Greenspan couldn’t stop telling the other guys in the booth about the future he envisioned for himself in criminal law. He would emulate the great Clarence Darrow. It was going to be fantastic. From time to time, Ross broke his own silence. “It won’t be like you think it will be,” he warned Eddie. “Nothing at all like that.” But Ross couldn’t deflate Eddie’s enthusiasm. And soon Ross gave up. Eddie kept talking, full of dreams and optimism.

After a couple of weeks of Eddie’s upbeat talk, Ross began to feel some of his own old fervour for criminal law. He was at least thinking it was time to get back to his practice. Working criminal cases was all he knew how to do in the world. It was all he wanted to do, and he felt ready to return to the courtroom, to clients who needed defending. This was his calling. The nightmares with the murmuring sound track of the Lucas and Turpin voices still assaulted him every time he lay his head down. The voices remained painful, but for Ross, there was little in life that didn’t arrive hand-in-hand with some brand of pain.

And then, before he returned to criminal law, he needed to get past one more setback, a milder tribulation but still annoying. The guy in charge of the knife booth, the so-called Abbott of England representative, turned out to be running a scam on the six demonstrators.

“He paid us a little to keep us going,” Eddie Greenspan remembered. “But in the end, he screwed us, Ross and me and the other four. We didn’t get a penny more.”

A lesson learned, Eddie left to work his way over the following decades into such a virtuoso career in criminal law that he came as close as anyone to a status as Canada’s own Clarence Darrow. He got it all done before he died unexpectedly on the day before Christmas 2014, seventy years old and dead of a heart attack.

At the end of the summer of 1962, Ross borrowed a few dollars from Lil. He moved back to the Victoria Hotel, and began the business of putting a criminal practice together. As things unfolded, the clients came to Ross so suddenly and steadily that he was flabbergasted by his own early success. There was no way would he have guessed that among so many members of the criminal subculture, he had emerged as a champ. The system had it in for Lucas and Turpin, and it was Ross who fought the system tooth and nail.

In the subculture, Ross drew acclaim for his mighty efforts on behalf of the two doomed men. People started to retain him for their own cases. Clients who could actually pay Ross’s fees asked for his services.

While Lucas and Turpin waited out their final days on earth, while Ross continued to endure the agony of his nightmares featuring the two men’s desperate murmurings, he was encountering for the first time ever in his life the beginnings of a successful career in the profession he had chosen.

On the late afternoon of December 11, 1962, Lucas and Turpin ate their last meal, a steak each, with spoons. In Corridor H-9 at the Don Jail, also known as Death Row, table knives and forks were considered weapons. Chaplain Cyril Everitt joined them at the meal, also using a spoon on his steak. His choice of implement came out of comradeship since he had been passing parts of every day in the men’s company from the time Lucas and Turpin arrived in H-9’s tiny cells. Over the months, Everett said prayers with the two, talked sports, played checkers (Lucas was an ace at the game), and generally shot the breeze.

Ross didn’t visit on the ultimate day for his former clients. He and Lil White had come by a couple of weeks earlier, a meeting that was awkward and deeply saddening for Ross. Walter Williston was the only lawyer who made a call on the final day. “When a man thinks he has been tricked out of his life,” Lucas said to Williston, “it’s hard.”

Just before midnight, H-9 fell silent when the official hanging party assembled in the corridor outside the cells. There were nine men in the party including the Don’s official physician, Dr. W.H. Hills, and a man known only as Arthur Ellis, the traditional pseudonym for the Canadian hangman. Wasting no time, the party walked a brisk twenty-five yards, through three doors to the corridor that served as the Don’s gallows room. Ellis positioned Lucas and Turpin on a trap door in the floor, tied straps around the legs of both, and slipped black hoods over their heads, nooses around their necks. At two minutes past midnight, Ellis pulled a lever that sprung the trap door. The two men in nooses dropped six feet into the room below, and dangled three feet above its floor. The drop fractured both men’s cervical vertebrae, but Dr. Hills, standing on a step ladder to monitor their heart beats with his stethoscope, didn’t pronounce them dead until 12:18 a.m., Tuesday, December 12, 1962.

With popular opinion in the country running against capital punishment (though not by much), there were no executions in Canada in the following five years. Then, in 1967, Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s Liberal government brought into law a bill that ended execution for all convicted murderers except in cases where the victims were policemen or jail guards. Eleven years later, on July 26, 1976, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau called for a Parliamentary free vote on the issue which resulted in the passing of a bill eliminating capital punishment altogether. Arthur Ellis was now out of business, and jails and prisons all across the country dismantled their scaffolds and nailed down their trap doors.

From 1867 to 1976, Canada hanged 710 people convicted of murder. Lucas and Turpin were slotted at numbers 709 and 710. Ross Mackay’s place in Canadian legal and social history was forever locked in as the lawyer who defended the last two men in the country to be hanged.

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