Author says racism, undue media influence and biased law enforcement not bound by region or time
In her 2014 book The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, the second in a series of four historical true crime books, author and former forensic scientist Debra Komar investigates two cases of murder, revealing one killer. On January 27, 1896, 14-year-old Annie Kempton was murdered in her home in Bear River, Nova Scotia. Nine months later, following a sloppy and highly-publicized investigation, a Black man named Peter Wheeler was wrongfully hung for the crime. While Kempton’s killer may never be known (except, perhaps, to tight-lipped Komar), the author makes a compelling case that Wheeler was the victim of a biased legal system and frenzied public.
Can you tell me about your work on the Billy the Kid case?
I don’t think I would have written this book series were it not for my experience with Billy the Kid. In 2004, the governor of New Mexico announced he was reopening the investigation into the death of the notorious outlaw. New Mexico was one of three states that laid claim to the final resting place of Billy. As the forensic anthropologist for the state, I was assigned the job of proving we had the real Billy buried in Fort Sumner.
I had a seemingly unlimited budget and the power of a full homicide investigation. I spent three months investigating Billy, only to discover that the grave in Fort Sumner is empty. It was an embarrassment for the governor. But, for me, it taught me the power of modern forensic science to answer questions from our distant past.
How does your experience as a forensic scientist relate to your writing?
When you do case work, you answer the questions the court poses: Who? Why? How? When? When I retired from active service, I had a lot of larger, philosophical questions regarding the nature of justice. That was what made this series so appealing.
The series is similar to my professional work in that I applied the same standards and practices. It was essentially the same process — investigation, testing, analysis, conclusions — but with a very different outcome.
You started with the question “Is it possible to identify a wrongful conviction buried deep in our nation’s past and, in doing so, identify how and why the mistake occurred?” Why?
I witnessed well-known Canadian judicial errors — Guy Paul Morin, Steven Truscott, David Milgard — and saw how long it took to correct the mistakes. As a forensic scientist, I did hundreds of cases. The possibility that I got the wrong person in at least one of them keeps me up at night.
How did you come across the Peter Wheeler case?
I heard of the Annie Kempton murder shortly after I moved to Annapolis. When I began looking for a case to reinvestigate, it was one of many on the initial list. I was looking for a case in which history recorded a guilty verdict that no one ever really questioned. When I read the court transcript and began to re-examine the evidence, I realized what I was looking for was in my own backyard.
You lived 20 minutes away from Bear River. What was the legacy of the Peter Wheeler case in the community?
I was surprised by the passion with which the case is remembered in Bear River, a lovely community that has not seen much murder or violence. The victim, Annie Kempton, was beloved. Many living in the town today have family links to the story. There is an exhibit about the crime at the local museum in Bear River. Because of that lingering legacy — and because racism played a significant role in the case — I had to be especially sensitive in researching the story.
You paint a very negative picture of the lead investigator on the case, Nick Powers.
Detective Powers was the biggest surprise for me in researching the case. I had suspected investigator bias or ineptitude might have played some role, but I was not prepared for Powers’ handling of the case. It is still hard to know how much malpractice was intentional on Powers’ part, and how much was an artifact of the times.
What lessons did you learn about journalism from studying the original case?
Media coverage is entertainment, even when it professes to be news.
What would you want forensic scientists, prosecutors, juries and journalists today to take from Peter Wheeler’s story?
Many people believe that erroneous convictions are based on a mistake. The factors that lead to wrongful convictions — racism, the influence of the media, a cop with his own agenda — are not bound by region or time. The reasons that led to Wheeler’s false conviction are still very much part of the system today.
You’ve said you have your own theory about who the killer is, but you’ve never named anyone — in the book or otherwise. Why?
That’s the fine line we must navigate as forensic scientists: not imposing ourselves onto the investigation. My intention in writing the Wheeler book was to see whether it was possible to identify a false conviction in the historical record, and I am confident I did that. My goal was not to try someone in absentia.
I believe in the right to defend yourself and to confront your accusers. If I were to name the “real killer,” I would be convicting someone without due process or the right to recourse. That’s not how I believe the system should work. The reader is welcome to draw their own conclusions.