VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Jury trial for accused serial killer Pickton could last two years: defence
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. (CP) - The lead lawyer for the man accused of being Canada's worst serial killer says a jury trial for Robert Pickton could go on for almost two years and testimony may not begin this fall as planned.
"We have come up with estimates as high as 90 weeks, which is alarming - 90 weeks with adjournments, and that could put us close to a two-year trial," Peter Ritchie told Justice James Williams in B.C. Supreme Court.
Ritchie cautioned the time-frame is the defence's guess based on the Crown going ahead with the 26 murder counts that Pickton is charged with.
"Our best guess is, admittedly highly speculative," Ritchie told Williams.
After listening to Ritchie's submission, the judge said, jokingly: "You may need a younger trial judge."
Ritchie noted a two-year trial length "gives rise to some very serious issues about a jury."
In Canada, defence and Crown lawyers pick 12 jurors and two alternates. But once the trial starts hearing evidence, the two alternates are dismissed. Under the law, a trial must start over if the number of jurors drops below 10.
"Just to make sure we are all clear here," said Ritchie as the accused sat behind him in the prisoner's box.
"Our jury laws in selecting alternates for jurors are, in my respectful view, pathetically poor. We can't put additional alternates on in any way in an effective manner.
"If this trial lasts something like two years, the chances of holding a jury together are difficult, if not highly remote."
"If we lose more than three we are out luck and we have to start again," said Ritchie.
It would be "disastrous" if the trial went so long that the jurors' attrition ended up in the trial having to start over, he said.
Pickton has actually not yet formally opted for a jury to hear the case, but Ritchie has said that is the intention.
Kevin Church, a defence lawyer in Kamloops and a criminal justice spokesman for the Canadian Bar Association, said lawyers are obligated to not mislead the court.
"I imagine he's telling (the judge) the truth because that is what Peter Ritchie would do," said Church. "If he said his best estimate is 90 weeks then I guess it's 90 weeks."
Church noted that 26 counts entails "a lot of evidence. When you consider an average murder trial may last a month, multiply that by 26."
Church said he could not think of a jury trial in Canada that lasted two years.
"That's beyond my knowledge and it would certainly be exceptionally difficult. It's an exceptional thing to ask of somebody but (Pickton) has a right to a jury trial."
A phase of the trial began in January that involves defence and Crown lawyers making arguments on what evidence should be admitted. The judge decides what evidence can be put before a jury when one is selected.
Pickton has been in custody since February 2002 and is facing 26 counts of first-degree murder in connection with an investigation over a long list of missing women from Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside.
While the current phase of the trial is under a publication ban, the judge allowed some parts of what the lawyers said in court Wednesday to be exempt from the ban, as long as they didn't touch on evidence.
Outside court, Ritchie said the defence is struggling to try to shorten the length of time the case will take.
"When the Crown chooses to go on so many counts there is a lot of evidence, and it's going to be a jury trial, and it would be extraordinarily difficult for jurors to deal with something over a long period of time."
He said it was "highly unusual" to ask a juror to take a year or two out of his or her life.
"It may be impossible to do that. It may be unfair to do that."
Ritchie told the court that as many as 500 witnesses could be called in order just to make the case that the women named in the indictment are actually missing.
"We are speculating about that because the Crown is the authority that decides how to present a case. We don't know how many witnesses they are going to call. Are they going to be calling a huge number or a very small number?"
Ritchie said everyone - including his client - wants the trial to move forward as soon as possible.
"(But) I have grave concerns whether our sights are properly levelled at starting in September or October given the fact that there is so much more to be done pre-trial."
He told the judge the defence team has had a huge amount of material disclosed to it by the Crown.
But the defence still needs a better idea of what witnesses and exhibits the Crown will present to a jury.
Crown counsel Derrill Prevett said the Crown is in the process of supplying that information to the defence, as well as a trial plan.
Ritchie said that might help reduce the wait.
"I'm very relieved to hear that we are finally going to be getting a trial plan so that we can press our team in the right direction."
© The Canadian Press 2006
Updated: August 21, 2016