This Tuesday I visited the grave site of Leo Anthony Mantha, the last person ever executed in British Columbia. He was born in Montreal on Dec. 22, 1926, executed in Burnaby on Apr. 28, 1959, and buried at Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery in Montreal on May 11, 1959.
Mantha was a tugboat operator and former sailor. He was gay and wanted to have a long-term relationship with his boyfriend Aaron “Bud” Jenkins. Jenkins tried to break up with him and Mantha stabbed Jenkins to death. In 1959 was tried, convicted, and executed.
I wrote more about the case back in 2009. You can read that here.
I believe Mantha’s life, or more accurately his death, marks an important chapter of British Columbia history and was surprised to find out that nobody documented his final resting place. So, while I was in Montreal I tracked down his grave with the help of my dear friend Joanne and friendly cemetery staff. Mantha is buried in a family plot and while the grave is marked with a prominent headstone his name was not engraved on it.
In the late 50s a conviction of first-degree murder carried an automatic sentence of death. Although the law required him to issue the sentence Mr. Justice J.G. Ruttan quickly wrote to the minister of justice, asking or clemency saying that it should be commuted like all the rest. His request was denied.
The prime minister of the day, John Diefenbaker, opposed capital punishment and his government commuted most death sentences to life sentences. Most people convicted of “crimes of passion”, that is people who killed their romantic partner, saw their sentences commuted.
Some people felt that homophobia played a role in Mantha’s fate.
In a 1999 Lloyd McKenzie, the Crown prosecutor in the Mantha trial, told the Vancouver Courier that the judge in the case felt that Mantha’s sexual orientation was a strong motivation in cabinet’s decision.
“He had a very heavy load to carry in defending himself in this case because he was homosexual,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it, that was a very strong factor against him.