Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Bagbys: Newsmaker of the year (December 2003)

A wise editor once told me that a news story is never really over; that its ramifications continue to ripple outward, affecting other people and triggering new events that are noteworthy unto themselves. Which is why it is so important to “follow” a story, even when it appears to have gone dormant.

The truth of this was driven home on September 3, when David and Kathleen Bagby went public over their frustration with the justice system, and despair over the loss of grandson Zachary. The Bagbys brought international attention to a story that many reporters said had come to a “conclusion.”

You could feel the Bagbys’ pain, and it was hard not to agree with their contention that the justice system had failed Zachary. Suddenly, the Turner story was back on the public agenda, and the Bagbys made it clear they were planning to keep it there. It became, without question, the story of the year in this province.

At the centre of this emotional roller-coaster have been David and Kathleen Bagby. They’ve shown remarkable strength, hanging on tenaciously as the story took some unexpected, at times heart-wrenching twists and turns.

I contacted Mr. Bagby, who consented to an interview. We discussed events and the ensuing media coverage more or less in chronological order, beginning with an article headlined ‘In defence of Shirley Turner’ which appeared in The Telegram on the Labour Day weekend. In it, writer Renee Pollett engaged in reminiscences of a year spent studying with Shirley Turner, as well as some armchair psychology about the plight of the single mother, to rationalize Turner’s behaviour.

“Obviously, it was irritating, aggravating and infuriating, but (the writer) cut herself off at the knees in the first paragraph, when she wrote that she hadn't had contact with Shirley Turner in over 20 years,” Bagby said. “Who cares what Turner was like as a kid… What's important is what she's done since then.”

The Bagbys went public to vent their feelings just days later. However, they were not driven to do so by The Telegram article. They were waiting for the police to finish their work.

“The police were still investigating,” Bagby said. “We wanted to make absolutely sure they didn’t uncover anything else… and they publicly confirmed that it was murder-suicide. We had a meeting with the investigating officer who gave us a summary. So we had our facts straight and were ready to tell the public what we thought about it.”

The delay also gave the Bagbys time to collect their thoughts and get the details right, he added. “If I had stepped in front of a camera the day after Zachary had been murdered, I’d have been a lunatic.”

The news conference was an emotional event and some controversial statements were made, but Bagby makes no apologies for it. “We want impact, and the impact we want is change. I don’t know how to get it exactly but we had to make that statement to get it off our chest partly and also to make sure that the public at large saw as much as possible about what happened.”


The tactic worked. There was a flood of media coverage about the Turner case, in the weeks and months after the Bagby news conference. The Telegram, NTV and local radio followed the story on a daily basis. There was a sensitive and insightful interview with the Bagbys in The Express.

National media also followed the story closely. A member of Shirley Turner’s family gave the National Post access to Turner’s personal diaries, in which Turner wrote to her baby in the months before she killed him. Turner ostensibly planned to give the diaries to Zachary when he turned 18. However, the diaries didn’t ring true. Turner insisted she was innocent, and described Andrew Bagby as her “best friend”. A more cynical observer might suggest that Turner was trying to manufacture ‘evidence’ that might be used at her trial.

The most in-depth and compelling coverage came during November, through a series of investigative reports by Chris O’Neill-Yates of CBC TV’s “Canada Now”. The documentary series gave new momentum to this story, and raised new questions about the Turner case.

The Bagbys worked with CBC in producing the series. “She wanted to get the story out there, in detail, and that matched our goal, so we cooperated fully with her and asked people we know, including the police in Pennsylvania, to cooperate with her. We were very happy with the result. She has hit all the major points and it was extremely powerful.”

Working on the piece meant the Bagbys had to make some gut-wrenching decisions about showing photos of Andrew’s body, lying face down in that parking lot. They agreed to allow the use of photos taken at some distance from the body.

“We would not have wanted close-ups or pure sensationalism,” Bagby said, his voice breaking with emotion. “But we did want responsible people to see that this is what the words on those pieces of paper meant! And somebody who even probably did that needs to be treated with a great deal of care.”

O’Neill-Yates series introduced new information, including evidence from Pennsylvania about the case against Turner, and revelations of how Turner’s behavior deteriorated in the weeks before Zachary’s murder (including harassment of a new boyfriend). It was apparent from the evidence that Shirley Turner was a woman who couldn’t deal with rejection.

In part four of her documentary series, O’Neill-Yates dropped in a subtle detail that might have been crucial to Zachary’s fate: at his first birthday party, the child ‘rejected’ Shirley Turner, reaching for his grandparents instead. This is not unusual behavior in young children, but it may have cost young Zachary his life. O’Neill-Yates didn’t say this; she just included the information as part of her piece, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.

You can view the entire series by O’Neill-Yates, along with related stories, by visiting


What was fascinating about the Shirley and Zachary Turner story was the way so many different stakeholders weighed in with their positions, especially after the Bagbys went public on September 3.

On September 4, the Minister of Social Services defended his department, saying it did everything it could to protect Zachary and that all protocols were followed. But the following day, apparently still feeling some pressure, the Minister ordered a full report on the services his department provided to this file. The report was delivered to the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate, which is conducting an independent investigation.

Also on September 4, the Newfoundland Supreme Court lifted a publication ban on evidence in the Turner case. The court lifted the ban in response to an application from the CBC, but who can say what role the Bagbys news conference played in that decision?

On September 5, we heard from a criminal defence lawyer, who said that the system worked as intended. “The Bagby’s concerns, grief and anger with the system are very understandable,” said Bob Simmonds, in an interview with Jeff Gilhooly of CBC Radio. “Having said that, that does not mean the system malfunctioned here.”

On September 13, lawyers with the Canadian Bar Association issued a statement that judges should not be singled out for the decisions they make, asking the public to respect the integrity of the justice system. The Bagbys intend to comply with this request, at least until the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate has completed its investigation.

On the whole, Bagby feels that “most” of media coverage has been fair and balanced. But he doesn’t mind when articles or letters to the editor get it wrong because it gives him an opportunity to write a rebuttal, and put his case before the public once again. Bagby recognizes that, in order to effect real change, he needs to hold the attention of the news media.

“That’s a big part of it,” he said. “We will talk to just about anybody in the press who seems reasonable. We are also writing letters to various officials who might be able to influence change. And I can’t say any more about that until I get answers from them.”

The next critical milestone in this story ¬– and the next opportunity for major media coverage – will be the report from Mr. Lloyd Wicks, the province’s Child and Youth Advocate. The Bagbys have had one meeting with Mr. Wicks, in which they discussed the process of his investigation. A more thorough interview will follow in the new year.

“He has a big job to do,” Bagby said. “He has to investigate all the details about what happened in Zachary’s short life… Our greatest function here, other than trying to keep this in the public eye, is to assist Mr. Wicks in his investigation as much as possible.”

The Bagbys have faith in Mr. Wicks’ ability to get to the bottom of the story. “I think his heart is in it,” Bagby said. “I am convinced he needs to find out what happened, get it documented and presumably come up with recommendations of what is needed to prevent or cut the probability of this happening again.”

For the Bagbys, this is truly a story that will never be over. I wish them continued strength and resolve in their mission to bring about change to our legal system, and more accountability to those entrusted with ensuring the safety of children in unusual situations like this.

And I hope they somehow find solace and peace in their lives.

God knows they deserve it.

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