Captain J.C. Bowen-Cothurst shot one person and ordered a firing squad to shoot three more in April 1916, later charged as guilty but insane.

Youth become judge and jury in century-old murder case

Young detectives change minds several times before coming up with final verdict

An old court case, a local man, an adolescent jury.

On July 20, 20 children, aged nine to 14, were presented with the facts of the century-old case of Captain J. C. Bowen-Colthurst.

Bowen-Colthurst was born in 1880 in Cork, Ireland, into an upper-class English-Anglican family.

He was given a superior education and entered the Royal Military College, where he graduated with honours and was commissioned into the 1st Royal Irish Rifles.

He fought in the Second Boer War, the Tibet Expedition, and World War I, and although young, Bowen-Colthurst quickly rose through the ranks to become captain.

Bowen-Colthurst was popular with his men, but he fell into disfavour with his superiors for his impulsive and crazed behaviour in the heat of battle. After being wounded in the Battle of Mons in World War I, Bowen-Colthurst was sent home to Ireland, where he was diagnosed as “mentally unstable” by his doctors.

It was at this time the Easter Uprising (a rebellion of the Irish against British rule in Ireland) occurred.

On the night of April 24, 1916, Captain Bowen-Colthurst was sent out from the Portobello Barracks in Dublin to investigate the house of a Mr. James Kelly, who was a suspected rebel leader.

Without cause or authority to do so, Bowen-Colthurst took a prisoner named Skeffington with him as a hostage.

On the way to the house of Mr. Kelly, the captain and his soldiers came across two youth, whom Bowen-Colthurst questioned. Then, for no apparent reason, Bowen-Colthurst abruptly shot one of the youth, the innocent 19-year-old J.J. Coade.

The detachment continued to the house of Mr. Kelly, who was absent at the time, and arrested two men found in the house, Mr. McIntyre and Mr. Dickson.

The next morning Captain Bowen-Colthurst ordered a guard to bring Skeffington, McIntyre and Dickson out into the yard for questioning.

As the guard sent off an inquiry, Bowen-Colthurst commanded a firing squad into the yard, where the three men were instantly shot dead.

None of them were involved in the rebellion and there was no coherent reason for their execution.

News of the events reached the Secretary of the State for War for England, who had Bowen-Colthurst arrested and court-martialed.

After being declared guilty but insane, Bowen-Colthurst was sent to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane in the summer of 1916.

He stayed there until 1918, when public complaints, evidence of shell shock and temporary insanity, and numerous statements of his character warranted his conditional release.

With his reputation tarnished, Bowen-Colthurst travelled to Canada and had settled in Terrace by 1921.

When his wife and four kids joined him two years later, they lived in a house at Kitsumkalum. His wife, Linda, purchased 60 acres of land at Waterlily Bay, and the family owned a cabin there.

They lived off Bowen-Colthurst’s army pension and later moved to Sooke, BC.

Linda died in 1940, leaving her property on Lakelse Lake to her kids, and Bowen-Colthurst married again.

Until his death in 1965, he was an active member of his local communities.

•••••

On July 20 this year, the facts of the case were hidden around the site and the participants were sent out to gather the clues. Facts and testimonies were organized and a timeline of the events was assembled and then read out to the entire group.

Any questions were addressed before the facts were left to be further examined.

There were three possible verdicts explained—guilty, not guilty, and special verdict (an option in English law wherein the jury finds the defendant neither guiltless, nor wholly guilty)—and all participants wrote down their choice of verdict.

The first count was read out with the majority voting guilty, a few declaring not guilty, and only a handful pronouncing special verdict.

The kids were then asked to explain their reasoning, which some did in jest, while others presented sound arguments. Another vote took place with much of the same conclusions.

After another short discussion, the issue of Bowen-Colthurst’s alleged insanity was brought to light, and a few participants mentioned the overwhelming evidence of his suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

After another vote, special verdict held the majority, with a few still arguing the guilty side.

The divided group was then asked to come up with their best arguments to try to sway the other side.

PTSD, shock, and lack of awareness of reality, stemming from an unstable mental state, was mentioned for the special verdict side.

Inexcusable guilt and the absolute innocence of those killed supported the guilty verdict.

One participant asked for the rest to think about what verdict they would want if they had killed while not in complete control of their mind and body.

In the end, the room descended into slight chaos and the case was ended with the actual historic verdict of “guilty but insane” explained.

Twenty participants were given a real case with complex circumstances and they stepped up to the challenge.

Their thoughtful discussion on the subject of PTSD and its effects on mind, body, and society, revealed a very mature understanding of the subject and a readiness to discuss and debate.

The two final verdicts, special verdict and guilty, were both well thought out and their handling of the trial-by-jury format was sophisticated and compelling.

In a program built on local history, criminal justice and human fallibility, the youth of Terrace demonstrated their own ability in handling a difficult and sophisticated subject and situation.

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