The Toronto Star

Serial murder hearing open to the public

B.C. judge denies request for closed courtroom U.S. TV stations say they will air news, despite ban


PORT COQUITLAM, B.C.—Families of Vancouver's missing women will be able to attend the preliminary hearing of a man accused in the serial killings of their loved ones after a judge refused to close the courtroom to the public and the media.

Provincial Court Judge David Stone yesterday ruled a standard publication ban on evidence from the pre-trial hearing was sufficient to ensure an impartial jury in the case of Robert William Pickton.

"I'm not prepared to accept the argument that the justice system is so fragile that appropriate measures cannot be taken so that the right of the accused to a fair trial is not put in jeopardy," Stone said.

The defence had argued Pickton's right to a fair trial would be jeopardized by allowing the media — especially U.S. media outlets — and public to attend, but not report, the hearing.

But David Sutherland, a lawyer representing Seattle's four main television stations, immediately made it clear that while his clients are "intending to do everything in their power to block direct transmission" of their news stories into Canada, they plan to air them in the United States and post them on their Internet Web sites.

"Once an American reporter has information they are, generally speaking, unwilling to restrict the use of that information," Sutherland told reporters outside court.

Pickton, 53, is charged with first-degree murder in connection with 15 of 63 women — predominantly drug addicts and prostitutes — who disappeared from Vancouver's downtown eastside as far back as the late 1970s.

Sitting behind bullet-proof glass in the witness box, Pickton showed little reaction to Stone's decision.

A preliminary hearing set to begin Jan. 13 will offer the first glimpse of the case against the pig farmer from this Vancouver suburb.

While a publication ban will bar Canadian reporters from disclosing evidence, defence lawyer Peter Ritchie argued that potential jurors could obtain evidence through American media or off the Internet, which do not have to honour the law. He wanted the courtroom closed to all but lawyers, court reporters and some sheriffs.

Families of the missing women, media lawyers and the crown had opposed his bid as too severe.

"The judge has shown a lot of compassion for the families," said Rick Frey, who was told last month that the remains of his daughter, Marnie, were found at the pig farm, although no charges have been laid in her death.

"He's acknowledging we're out there and we have every right to know what happened," Frey said in an interview from Campbell River on Vancouver Island, where a memorial service was to be held today for his daughter, who was 24 when she disappeared in 1997.

In rejecting what he called the "highly exceptional" move to close the courtroom, Stone cited numerous cases, including Paul Bernardo in Ontario, in which there was tremendous pre-trial publicity but it unfolded fairly and in "an uneventful manner."

Ritchie said defence lawyers will be closely monitoring the Web sites and broadcasts of American media to see if they should make another case for closing the courtroom.

"If it looks like it's getting out of hand I think the judge has made it clear in his rulings that we can stand up again and have him reconsider his ruling," Ritchie told reporters.

Lawyer Dan Burnett, representing various Canadian media including the CBC, called the decision "a terrific victory for openness of the courts." He said even if American media defy the publication ban, just as it happened in the Bernardo case, the trial will be fair.

Additional articles by Daniel Girard

Courtesy of



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Updated: August 21, 2016