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Publication ban could cover Pickton trial after severing of counts: lawyers

Jeremy Hainsworth
Canadian Press

Friday, August 11, 2006

VANCOUVER (CP) - If accused serial killer Robert Pickton faces more than one trial on charges he killed 26 women, there's a good chance the public won't find out the details of the case for years, legal experts say.

Pickton is scheduled to stand trial in January, but a judge may decide the case should be subject to a publication ban if there are plans for later trials, they say. The first trial alone is expected to take a year. Vancouver media lawyer David Sutherland says the possibility of a publication ban is "very high."

"As soon as there was a suggestion that some counts be split and tried first, there was an obvious expectation on the part of Crown and defence that there will be a publication ban cloaking the entire first trial with secrecy," Sutherland said.

"That is not beneficial because publicity improves trials, holds witnesses to acount and allows others to come forward if evidence needs to be rebutted or qualified."

Justice James Williams released a ruling Wednesday concluding that trying Pickton on 26 counts of murder all at once would be too much for jurors to comprehend and would drag the case on needlessly.

Williams suggested the Crown proceed on six counts at first but did not rule out trying Pickton on the remaining 20 at a later time.

Crown spokesman Geoffrey Gaul, however, said it would be premature at this stage to discuss whether a ban would be sought in a first trial for Pickton.

"We're going to have to wait and see what happens at the beginning of the trial. If defence wish to have a publication ban, they can bring on a motion. Crown will have to consider that issue and the court will also.

"We'll just have to wait and see."

Gaul said it has not been determined which of the 26 murder counts Pickton will face when he goes on trial Jan. 8, nor is there a timeline for any subsequent trials.

Pickton's lawyers could not be reached for comment.

Sutherland said when there are multiple accused facing separate trials or one accused facing multiple charges as Pickton is, the likelihood of a publication ban on a trial is not unheard of.

For example, a publication ban was ordered on the trial of Karla Homolka in order to prevent tainting a potential jury pool for the trial of her school-girl-killer husband, Paul Bernardo, in 1994.

Only Canadian reporters were allowed to cover Homolka's trial. American reporters were barred from the court because they would not be covered by a judge's order, Sutherland said.

Vancouver lawyer Greg DelBigio, acting chair of the national criminal section for the Canadian Bar Association, said the defence could have a very real concern that Pickton might not be able to get a fair second trial with a jury should he be convicted in a first trial.

"There is always a concern of that sort and that would have to be assessed by the defence lawyers at the time of the second trial," DelBigio said.

Sweeping bans have covered all court proceedings in the case to this point so as not to taint the pool of potential jurors.

However, Sutherland said the publication bans in the Pickton case have already been breached after several American media outlets allegedly reported details from the preliminary hearing.

While Judge David Stone extended the preliminary hearing publication ban to the Internet, Sutherland questioned whether a Canadian judge has such jurisdiction.

"If the New York Times or the Associated Press wants to cover the William Pickton trial, it's very, very difficult to block coverage," he said.

Sutherland noted, however, that American TV stations covering the preliminary hearing agreed to notify Canadian cable providers when a news story would air about Pickton so it could be blocked from B.C. televisions.

Sutherland said such bans have the effect of cloaking courts in secrecy.

"It's not a public trial," he said. "It will sure prevent the public from having an opportunity to scrutinize the administration of justice."

It's expected that 3,500 people will be called as potential jurors this fall to pick the jury for Pickton's first trial. Testimony is due to start Jan. 8.

The decision to separate the charges against Pickton has upset some of the families of the women he is accused of killing.

But Pat de Vries, whose daughter Sarah is among those who were severed from the indictment following Williams' ruling Wednesday, said she agrees with the decision.

She said the move "makes perfect sense."

"I think it's a practical solution, having six rather than the 26 which is ridiculous and costs the taxpayer a hell of a lot more and would probably get mucked up," she said from Guelph, Ont., where she lives.

DelBigio said the severing of charges in a complex case is not common, though it is done sometimes to ensure an accused gets a fair trial.

"The (Pickton) case is uncommon," he said.

"The severing of charges is not a day-to-day occurrence but it is an established remedy that a judge can grant on very broad grounds simply when the interests of justice require the severance of counts," he said.

"When a case is long and complex and before a jury, there is always a concern that you're going to lose jurors or that jurors might be unable to appreciate the significance of all of the evidence or properly apply the law to all of the evidence."

 The Canadian Press 2006

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016