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Bernardo jurors: Pickton trial will change you

By Greg Joyce
Canadian Press

December 8, 2006

VANCOUVER (CP) — They found sex-killer Paul Bernardo guilty many years ago, but the trauma of the numbing evidence lingers for jurors Eric Broadhurst and Harshad Ondhia.

Their ordeal and that of their 10 fellow jurors lasted four long months.

This weekend, about 600 potential jurors for accused serial killer Robert (Willy) Pickton make their way to New Westminster Law Courts, and the 12 that are eventually selected as Pickton’s jury will embark on a trial of about one year’s length.

“Seven or so of us went for counselling after the trial and it was of some help,” said Broadhurst, now retired and living in Waterloo, Ont. “Time is a healer.”

Broadhurst, picked as the sixth juror in the infamous Bernardo trial in Toronto in 1995, said therapy was offered at the trial’s conclusion.

“It clarified a few things and cleansed your mind and helped bring yourself back to Earth.”

Ondhia remembered having to take “sleeping tablets” on some nights during the trial in which the jury watched videotapes of the girls’ torture and murder.

He said counselling “helped a little.”

“But no matter what, it’s never going to go away no matter how hard you try.”

When Broadhurst and Ondhia are told the Pickton trial is estimated to last between eight and 14 months, they are momentarily speechless.

“Incredible,” said Broadhurst, who worked as a self-employed human resources consultant until the trial “essentially killed my business.”

“I think that (trial length) would be life-changing. It blows my mind. Something that could last three times the length of what I sat through.”

Ondhia sounded stunned.

“Oh my God,” he said of the possible trial length.

“We had to go through quite a bit of stuff which never goes away,” said Ondhia, then and now employed by the Toronto District School Board. “It’s going to stay with you forever. It’s quite stressful.”

Pickton’s trial begins Jan. 8 and he faces six first-degree murder charges. The judge earlier severed the six counts from the original 26 charges.

A second trial on the 20 charges is to follow the first trial.

Pickton, who was arrested in February 2002, is charged in connection with the deaths of women who frequented the pitiable Downtown Eastide area of Vancouver.

Under Canadian law, an accused facing a murder charge can choose a jury trial or a trial by judge alone. Pickton has chosen a jury.

When the 600 potential jurors begin the process Saturday in New Westminster, they’ll represent about one-sixth of the total number of 3,500 people who received summonses for Pickton jury duty.

Out of that entire pool, 14 jurors will be selected starting Monday — 12 jurors and two alternates. The two alternates are excused when the trial begins hearing evidence.

Broadhurst recalled jury selection for Bernardo, who was convicted in the sensational killings of teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, took only two days and about 250 potential jurors before the final jury panel was chosen.

Broadhurst, Ondhia and about 1,500 other potential jurors in the Bernardo trial gathered in a hotel ballroom to hear the judge’s instructions.

A similar format has been put in place for Pickton, where the jurors will gather en masse Saturday in B.C. Supreme Court, receive preliminary instructions from Justice James Williams and then form into 20 groups of 30 people.

Each person is given a number and on Monday, when jury selection begins in earnest, people from the first group are called individually into the courtroom and asked questions to determine their suitability and impartiality.

Broadhurst recalled those early jury days with Bernardo.

“All kinds of excuses come out,” he said. “One woman claimed she couldn’t handle the horror she expected to come out of this. The judge saw the terror in her eyes and excused her.”

When the trial began, Broadhurst and the other jurors were asked not to read newspapers, listen to radio or watch TV.

They were not sequestered until they began to deliberate. The Pickton jurors also will not be sequestered until the trial ends.

Ondhia said the whole selection process for him and others was like being aboard a runaway train.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about the whole thing (selection). I don’t think the people that got selected realized what they were getting into.”

Criminal lawyer Mark Jette thinks the jury selection process in Canada is a big crap shoot.

A well-known Vancouver defender, Jette has been involved in criminal trial jury selections and is remarkably blunt about the process in Canada.

“There is absolutely no science whatsoever in what we do in picking juries, if you ask me,” he said. “The more I’ve done it the more I realize it’s just an absolute shot in the dark.”

And the Crown and defence lawyers are prone to the same subjective biases as everybody else. Almost all defence lawyers have categories of people they avoid, usually based on their occupation, he said.

Correctional officers, for instance, are routinely rejected as jurors by defence lawyers because of the assumption they may be biased towards the prosecution.

Many lawyers have their own “pet theories,” he said.

“I don’t pick bankers, accountants or teachers. But there is absolutely no empirical evidence in support of any of these things.”

Jette acknowledges that defence lawyers have biases and that “sometimes it comes down to simply looking at the person in court and getting a vibe.”

The prosecution is no better, he said.

“The Crown is as bad as we are because a guy might come up (as a potential juror) with a big pot plant on his shirt. The case might not be about pot but the Crown sees him as an anti-establishment person.”

Had the Pickton trial occurred in the U.S., the defence and Crown might be calling on people such as Sonia Chopra, who knows a lot about jurors and about trying to select the right ones for the right case.

She is a trial consultant with the National Jury Project, which has offices in four U.S. cities.

Virtually unknown and seldom used in Canada, jury consultants are often hired by U.S. lawyers and use research and social science to improve jury selection.

They may set up mock trials, design questionnaires to help weed out undesirable jurors, evaluate witnesses, and conduct surveys to advise counsel whether to seek changes of venue.

The judge in the Pickton trial, with input from the defence and Crown, will distribute a questionnaire to potential jurors to determine whether they should be excused because of financial or health considerations.

If a potential juror makes it past that initial screening, he or she will be subject to a “challenge for cause” in which the judge asks questions to determine whether he or she can’t be impartial and therefore unfit to be a juror.

The impartiality screening is important to Chopra.

“I’d be concerned about people who want to be on the (Pickton) jury because what is their motivation?” she asked in a telephone interview from her office in Oakland, Calif.

Chopra offers another, perhaps more important, piece of advice.

“You don’t want a person on the jury who has never heard of Pickton because they are not living in the real world.”

The Bernardo jury was picked fairly quickly. The defence and Crown in Pickton have said previously that they don’t anticipate any problems in finding a jury.

But jury selection in the U.S. can go on for a long time.

“The questioning of jurors can go on for several weeks in (a U.S.) court,” said Chopra, who earned her PhD in psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

As part of her ongoing research into improving jury selection, she has interviewed dozens of Canadian jurors after they finished their duties.

“Some jurors said that some others on their jury should not have been there.”

Some jurors told her that their fellow jurors should have been asked outright if they can “take” the kind of evidence in a potentially disturbing trial.

“It would make for a better jury,” she said.

But jury duty, as judges always remind potential jurors, is an integral cornerstone of a democratic society.

Broadhurst and Ondhia say they understood that, and even formed close friendships with their fellow jurors.

“There was a profound friendship and bonding with the other jurors,” said Broadhurst. “And there was a fair degree of black humour amongst ourselves, which was sad in one way because of the seriousness of the case.”

Ondhia said that after the Bernardo trial, many jurors met regularly for dinners and get-togethers.

But now they seem to have drifted apart permanently.

Their last meeting, which involved about six or seven jurors, was about three years ago.

Canadian Press

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016