U.S. stations offer to block coverage of Pickton

The lawyer for the accused killer made his arguments in court for a closed hearing

Kim Bolan
Vancouver Sun

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

U.S. television stations have worked out an arrangement with Shaw Cable to block out their signals during their coverage of the preliminary hearing of accused serial killer Robert William Pickton, a lawyer representing American media outlets said Monday.

Sketch by Felicity Don, Special To The Vancouver Sun / Robert Pickton (left) was in court on Monday represented by defence lawyer Peter Ritchie in Port Coquitlam before Judge David Stone. Ritchie wants the preliminary hearing closed to the public.

David Sutherland, who is representing KIRO, KING, KOMO and KCPQ, said he intends to argue in a provincial courtroom today that an application to close Pickton's preliminary hearing is unnecessary because his U.S. media clients do not intend to breach an automatic ban on publication.

Sutherland said they have a deal with the cable company so that news reports which use information from the hearing for American audiences would not be broadcast in Canada.

"The affiliates I represent come into Canada I understand it entirely by cable," Sutherland said. "It's intended that it be blocked, that the cable be blocked. That is a specific proposal we are putting forward."

Sutherland made the comments outside Port Coquitlam court after Pickton's lawyer Peter Ritchie began his submissions as to why he believes a closed courtroom in "this extraordinary case" is the only way his client can get a fair trial.

Ritchie said the international media attention paid to the Pickton case is "as intense as it can be in our modern society."

He said the only way to guarantee an impartial jury pool for his client's eventual trial is to hold an in-camera preliminary hearing with only the judge, clerks, lawyers for both sides and a couple of sheriffs present.

"It is readily apparent that there is significant American media interest," Ritchie said. "There seems to be no other solution but excluding the public from the courtroom for the course of the preliminary hearing."

But he said a closed courtroom "does not mean they are secret proceedings. It does not."

Pickton, 53, is charged with killing 15 women who were on a list of 65 missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Ritchie said that not only has there been intensive coverage of the murder probe, but also generally of the missing women case.

"The mere ban on publication does not have a chance of being effective when it comes downstream to selecting a jury," he said.

Ritchie said he believes that mainstream Canadian journalists would not violate a ban on publication imposed on the preliminary hearing.

"The court has the power to act should they breach any publication ban," Ritchie said,

He presented an affidavit from a legal assistant who found numerous international reports on internet Web sites that could not be controlled even if there is a publication ban.

Ritchie said that while he recognized families of Pickton's alleged victims want to be in court, they should appreciate the best way to ensure a fair trial and a just outcome is to take the extraordinary step of closing the court.

Under section 537 of the Criminal Code, a judge can close the courtroom to the public "where it appears to him that the ends of justice will be best served by so doing."

Ritchie said he does not accept that the U.S. stations could successfully block cable signals.

And even if they could, it would not deal with those who own satellite dishes or have access to the internet, he said.

"The purpose is to ensure that the case goes forward properly," Ritchie said.

As Ritchie drew attention to the interest of foreign news operations, reporters from the Associated Press, Reuters, The Washington Post, Agence France Press and even The Hollywood Reporter scribbled notes.

Pickton sat in the specially constructed bulletproof Plexiglas prisoners' docket throughout the proceedings wearing the same grey mottled sweater, grey shirt and black jeans that he has had on in recent appearances.

At times during the arguments, he appeared to be sleeping.

Crown prosecutor Michael Petrie said he is opposed to Ritchie's application to close the courtroom.

Media lawyers representing The Vancouver Sun, the Province, Global television, CTV, CBC and CKNW were also in the courtroom to oppose Ritchie's application.

While provincial court Judge David Stone said he did not have the power to grant them intervenor status, he accepted copies of their written submissions and said he would consider them before the hearing resumes today.

Outside court, Ritchie told dozens of journalists crowded in front of him with microphones, tape recorders and cameras to turn around and look at themselves.

"Rather than having your cameras here on me, why don't you turn your cameras on each other here to let us know how much the media is going to affect the potential jury pool here," Ritchie said.

Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn is among the missing women, has hired lawyer Stan Guenther to argue in favour of a public process.

"I think [Ritchie] seeks to cast too broad a net. The remedies he seeks to control information that might flow from the preliminary [are] far too severe. I don't agree with it. So I will be returning tomorrow with my legal counsel to see what develops," Crey said. "I am going to fight that as hard as I can."

He said by being in court, he can pay tribute to his sister, who was last seen in December, 2000.

"It is one of the few ways I can honour her memory and show respect for her memory," Crey said. "I think it is my right to be present in the courtroom. It is a right I am prepared to stand up for and fight for."

Meanwhile, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression issued a statement Monday urging the judge to keep the preliminary hearing open to the media.

"It would be a serious affront to Canadians' right to know, and to the principle of a free press, if the request to close the court was granted," CJFE executive director Joel Ruimy said.

"Canadian journalists have an exemplary record of respecting publication bans during preliminary hearings. But in order to do their job properly in the eventuality of a trial, those journalists must be allowed to attend the preliminary hearing."

Ruimy said the concern over what American news outlets might do should not affect Canadian journalists. 

 Copyright  2002 Vancouver Sun

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