Pickton hearing and Port Coquitlam a surreal contrast

Deborah Jones
Special to the Sun

Saturday, December 07, 2002

The words in the courtroom flow over and around Robert Pickton.

For hours on end, the man accused of 15 counts of first-degree murder sits, quietly composed, in the bulletproof prisoner's box of Port Coquitlam's provincial court.

His hands rest lightly on his knees. What greying brown hair remains on his balding head is combed and reaches down to shoulders clad in a luxurious, woven blue-grey sweater. The sharp-featured, grizzled 53-year-old face remains almost expressionless.

Pickton's steadfast gaze is on the judge and defence and prosecution lawyers arguing his case. Never, ever, does he glance toward the rows of keen observers who come to bear witness, professionally as reporters or soulfully as families and friends of his alleged victims.

For hours on end sheriffs who bear guns and are imposingly burly in bulletproof vests, scan the public gallery, zooming in attentively on a reporter who lifts a metal pen, a spectator who rises suddenly to leave.

Such are the details that elude the official court transcript -- a one-dimensional, black-and-white record of legal-speak often lacking nuance or expression. Such are the details that will contribute to, as media lawyer Barry Gibson called it this week, "a chapter of history."

A decision Friday by Judge David Stone will ensure that this chapter will be on the record, rather than lost to history as was threatened this week.

Stone denied an application by Pickton's lawyer Peter Ritchie to keep the media and public out of the preliminary hearing due to start Jan. 13, to determine if Pickton's case goes to trial.

Although such hearings are always under a publication ban, Ritchie had said the threat was too great that information would spread and contaminate the pool of potential jurors. He raised the spectre of the tentacles of Internet and electronic media reaching across flimsy Canadian barriers, extracting and amplifying details that Ritchie allowed would be "exceedingly grim."

In the manner of a besieged medieval government trying to seal with wax explosive information being sent by courier, Ritchie wanted the court locked to all but the court staff, judge and prosecution and defence.

Thankfully, the counter-arguments won Stone over.

Crown prosecutor Michael Petrie had urged the court to balance the rights of an accused with the rights of public access, which he suggested was more important even than media access. Lawyers for media outlets argued that not only is the role of the media so important it provides the public record of proceedings (even if they cannot be published until the ban is lifted), but that freedom of the press is a democratic principle.

Thankfully, the judge did not believe that Canadians are so easily influenced, so flimsy in character, that exposure to leaked information would separate us from our critical faculties and make jury selection impossible.

Throughout, there was an air of suspense in the court. Sooner or later, lawyers suggested, a nugget of information so salacious, so shocking, will come out that the world will rivet its attention on Port Coquitlam.

Sitting in the media rows, I imagine that the atmosphere in this decorous courtroom flickers, that every so often a surreal quality suffuses the bright room with its clean rust carpet, theatre-like seating, handsome wood and metal appointments. Is this polite environment deliberately designed to make bearable the stories told within?

Outside, past the phalanx of RCMP and sheriff's officers, through the heavy doors, things are not nearly as sanitized.

The Pickton family farm on Dominion Avenue is mere kilometres from the court, across the clanging train tracks and the Lougheed Highway, adjacent to Home Depot, Costco and the Superstore big-box emporiums where Pickton once had the contract to plough snow from the parking lot.

The farm, once full of ramshackle vehicles, trailers and an old house, is dominated by front-end loaders gnawing at mountainous piles of mud. They spit it on to conveyer belts, where police and forensic scientists painstakingly look for body parts, bones, personal items -- anything to which a trace of DNA might cling.

The real story of what happened to the 15 women, and Pickton's role -- if any -- in their deaths, will not start in court. This former pig farm is where the truth will originate, the truth only hinted at in vague police reports of women's body parts, DNA and personal items being found.

It will be months, years perhaps, in unfolding. In the interim, life in Port Coquitlam will proceed apace -- the woman with the child in a stroller who curiously looks at the TV cameras as she passes the courthouse, the gatherings in the local Starbucks where people talk not about Pickton, but of their children and their daily lives.

Each morning during those long months, the sharp-featured man with the long hair will be ushered into his bullet-proof enclosure while lawyers, prosecutors and a judge determine if he'll go to trial on not just one, but 15, counts of first degree murder.

Each evening the court will close down and all the lawyers, judges, court staff and onlookers will traipse gratefully home. A few kilometres away, cars will pull into driveways of homes and townhouses overlooking the macabre sight of the pig farm, and the windows of those homes will flicker into light.

Pickton, however, won't be going home. Until his fate is determined, he'll be ushered out of his box, into a sheriff's car and will join the stream of rush-hour traffic on Highway One on his way back to jail.

And because of a judge's wise decision, the public and the press will bear witness to it all. 

 Copyright  2002 Vancouver Sun

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