FLASHBACK: PRIOR JAMES SHOOTING (July 16/99)

“The people of Nova Scotia, and especially the residents of this county, are much exercised by the tragic events of Thursday night last, when a colored man, Prior James, aged, and it is said of unsound mind, was killed while resisting arrest at the hands of the newly formed Nova Scotia police. As a result of the affray a charge of manslaughter has been made against two members of the police force.”

The shooting of alleged bootlegger Prior James occupied the news pages of provincial newspapers for the better part of two months during the autumn of 1930, and the excerpt above from an editorial in this newspaper accurately reflects the public’s reaction to the event. While newspaper accounts of the shooting report contradictory evidence, the conclusion can be drawn that Prior James’ death could have been avoided.

That, however, was not what raised the ire of the public and lead to an editorial crusade by The Advertiser. In question was the right of police officers to apparently act without legal warrants:

“The incident brings to public attention once more a very dangerous weakness of some of our modern legislation in this Province. We refer to the right to enter private homes and to effect arrest without magistrate’s warrant of any kind which has been given to police officials, temperance inspectors, etc. under legislation passed in Nova Scotia in recent years.”

While the above was the focus of the editorial crusade, The Advertiser was concerned as well with political interference in the justice system and the negative publicity Kentville was receiving: “The town has already received too much publicity of the wrong kind over this regrettable incident and unfortunately it would appear that the circumstances surrounding the laying of information are not entirely free from a political atmosphere of the most unsavory kind.”

A careful reading of accounts gives no clear indication of what part politics played in the James incident. What is clear, however, is that the coroner’s inquest, which found the shooting justified, had neglected to call a key eyewitness. And when the testimony of this witness was eventually made public, it contradicted the official version of the James shooting.

Events then proceeded much like they do nowadays when controversial issues arise involving our police forces. In the James case, the verdict of the coroner’s inquest was overturned, the Attorney General’s intervening and setting up what amounted to a one-man commission. At stake was the reputation of the recently formed provincial police force, which had come under fire for using excessive force.

Eventually, the officers involved in the James shooting were exonerated a second time and the Advertiser editorial writers did an about-face. Earlier in the case an editorial the Advertiser criticized the provincial police force, noting that they “seem to have come to the point where (they) believe that the enforcement of a prohibition statute, or a statute for the government sale of liquor or other legislation, warrants the very abrogation of Magna Charter itself.”

This was written on September 4. Three weeks later the Advertiser proclaimed that the discharge of the police officers charged with manslaughter in the death of Prior James has “brought a sigh of relief from every corner of this county.” The matter has been fully investigated the Advertiser said and “the public is satisfied that no cruelty or injustice has been done by the officers of the law.”

We can assume that friends and relatives of Prior James, noting the sudden turnabout of the Advertiser, were not amused.

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