VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Attendance drops at Pickton preliminary hearing
PORT COQUITLAM, B.C. — The preliminary hearing for the man accused of being Canada's worst serial killer went into its fourth day Thursday with only a few spots in the 100-seat courtroom occupied.
Provincial court Judge David Stone continued hearing evidence against pig farmer Robert Pickton under a clarified and extended publication ban. Pickton, 53, is charged with 15 counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of women who disappeared from Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside over several years.
The hearing began Monday in a blaze of publicity despite a ban on reporting evidence imposed by Stone to ensure an unbiased jury for Pickton's trial.
Relatives of the victims, as well as friends and relations of dozens of other women missing from the Downtown Eastside, sat in reserved seats to listen to the evidence.
Reporters from Canada, the United States and abroad also filled the suburban courtroom, even though they could report little more than Pickton's demeanour in the prisoner's dock.
But the media became the focus Tuesday after defence and Crown lawyers alleged both Canadian and U.S. news organizations had violated the ban.
Stone reiterated his ban Wednesday, spelling out its terms as "including any submissions, representations or rulings respecting evidence or the nature of the evidence taken at the preliminary hearing of Robert William Pickton."
And he said the ban extended to "any publication in any newspaper, on the Internet or broadcast by any means."
The judge also put three reporters for American news outlets on notice they could be barred from the hearing if they were responsible for any further breaches of the ban. He warned journalists they also face up to two years in jail if convicted of violating the ban.
Only one of the named reporters was in court Thursday and fewer Canadian journalists were there. Most of the seats reserved for relatives were also empty.
Media and legal observers had predicted international interest in the sensational case would make it hard to enforce a publication ban.
Some wondered why the Crown had not proceeded by direct indictment, which would have sent Pickton to trial without a preliminary hearing that's expected to last most of this year.
It is up to the Crown whether a case goes through a preliminary hearing or proceeds by direct indictment.
"Consent to a direct indictment constitutes an exception to the normal practice of holding a preliminary hearing," according to the policy manual of the Criminal Justice Branch.
Consent for a direct indictment is given when it is in the public interest, it says.
Among the factors the Crown can consider:
-Danger or harm to a witness, including the trauma of having to testify at multiple proceedings;
-The chances that a hearing would delay the trial enough to trigger a stay of proceedings;
-A lack of admissions by the accused on easily proven matters that could drive up a preliminary hearing's cost;
-Health problems of an accused or essential witness, or
-Ongoing police investigations, courtroom security and public safety.
The Crown can also file a direct indictment after a case has been discharged following a preliminary hearing if significant new evidence comes to light, if new charges are added or where a judge has made an error in law or with evidence and "the public interest requires (the charge) to be prosecuted," the manual says.
There is nothing that cannot be considered in making the decision, says Crown spokesman Geoff Gaul.
"We can look at any issue that impacts on the prosecution," he says.
Gaul said it would be improper to discuss whether a direct indictment is still under consideration in Pickton's case.
"At this point in time we're engaged in a preliminary inquiry, that's what we're working on."
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Updated: August 21, 2016