Dennis Oland was perceived as a mild-mannered family man of good character. Then, on Dec. 19, 2015, he was convicted of butchering his father, Richard Oland, a millionaire businessman and part of the family that owns Moosehead Breweries. The murder, which took place in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 2011, involved dozens of blows from an unknown object, possibly a drywall hammer. At the conclusion of the highly publicized trial, Justice John J. Walsh declared the case “a family tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.”
The enormity of that Shakespearean tragedy is tilted at in two new books by Saint John authors, who each recount, in astonishing and grisly detail, the much-criticized murder investigation and subsequent trial. However, the books are far less perceptive and poetical than what might be expected from the Bard. In addition, the authors – Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon and Greg Marquis – have to worry about a lack of eyewitnesses to interview, laws governing libel and contempt of court, appeals yet to be heard, and the Oland family’s refusal to go on record. As a result of these stumbling blocks, neither book ever really gets into the heads of the main figures in the story. Readers hoping to discover new dirt about the wealthy Olands will be disappointed.
Shadow of Doubt: The Trial of Dennis Oland, by CBC reporter MacKinnon, and Truth and Honour: The Death of Richard Oland and the Trial of Dennis Oland, by Marquis, a history professor at the University of New Brunswick, are similar in scope, but with important differences. MacKinnon’s writing is snappier and she spends more time detailing the many flaws in the Saint John police’s murder investigation. Marquis’s stodgier effort offers more important context about the Olands, placing them in the socio-political fabric of a province dominated by a few wealthy families, notably the Irvings and the McCains. As well, Marquis offers more analysis regarding the strengths and weaknesses of purely circumstantial evidence.
Books about famous murder cases often take a stand on the guilt or innocence of the accused. The Canadian gold standard in this regard is the 1999 book The Trial of Steven Truscott, written by Isabel LeBourdais. That investigative report sparked a reassessment of the brutal rape and murder for which Truscott was convicted and sentenced to hang. (Truscott was eventually freed.) Unlike LeBourdais’s polemic, the Oland books remain scrupulously objective. They do not crusade for an acquittal, although they both raise doubts about Dennis’s culpability.
Throughout the investigation and trial, Dennis was publicly supported by his widowed mother and his paternal uncle, Derek. Everyone had kind words for Dennis, but not for his murdered father. Much of the crown’s case hinged on Dennis’s brown Hugo Boss sports jacket, which contained minute blood stains and his father’s DNA. The defence had explanations, other than a murder, for the presence of the DNA, and further claimed the Saint John police lacked the legal right to test the jacket in the first place. The jacket was a key piece of evidence again this past October, when the New Brunswick Court of Appeal vacated the guilty verdict and ordered a new trial. At Q&Q’s press time, Oland was also to appear in the Supreme Court of Canada, where his lawyers would argue he should be released on bail pending the new proceedings.
The climax in both books occurs, naturally, with the jury returning a guilty verdict. Oland’s reaction is dramatically described by MacKinnon: “‘Oh no! Oh no!’ he wailed, his head in his hands. ‘Oh God! Oh my God! My children!’” Oland clung to his lawyer, we are told, “howling like a wounded wild animal.” MacKinnon then briefly allows herself to engage in some literary speculation. “It was chilling, as if someone had flicked a switch and the meek, mild Oland who sat placidly throughout the trial vanished, replaced by an entirely different person. For some, it was an illuminating glimpse into how he might have snapped that night in his father’s office four years earlier.”
When Marquis describes the same scene, his footnotes attest that he borrowed material broadcast on CBC by MacKinnon. Many of Marquis’s footnotes credit reports by Christine Morris, a highly respected senior writer with local Irving-owned newspapers. On the dust jacket of the book, Morris is quoted praising Marquis: “The account of Dennis Oland’s trial is so finely detailed, readers will feel like they are in the courtroom, experiencing the tragedy first hand.” Morris is, in essence, praising her own reporting. Maybe Morris can write the definitive book once the new trial is over.