Judge nixes tougher ban in Pickton case

Steve Mertl
Canadian Press

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. (CP) -- A defence bid to effectively seal the courtroom for hearings in accused serial-killer Robert Pickton's murder case was rejected Wednesday by the trial judge.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jane Wolsack

Robert Pickton appears on a video link to British Columbia Supreme Court in this courtroom artist's drawing in New Westminster, British Columbia.

Justice Jim Williams of the B.C. Supreme Court said a section of the Criminal Code that spells out the scope of publication bans in pre-trial hearings is sufficient even to deal with defence fears about Internet publication of what's heard in court on this high-profile case.

Williams said the law applies to posting of information on the Internet but in case it didn't he added a common-law ban on Internet publication to reinforce the provision.

Pickton's defence team worried widespread media interest in the sensational case, especially from foreign news organizations, would prompt widespread dissemination of evidence discussed in pre-trial hearings that run through the rest of this year at least.

They argued a sweeping ban that included prohibiting anyone discussing what they heard in court was necessary to ensure an untainted pool of jurors, should Pickton elect a jury trial.

But Williams, an experienced criminal lawyer before being appointed to the bench three years ago, accepted arguments from lawyers representing major Canadian news outlets that details of Pickton's 2003 preliminary hearing have been kept under wraps except for one hiccup early in those proceedings.

"The experience since the preliminary hearing would appear to suggest that notwithstanding the notoriety of this case, there is reason to be confident that the statutory publication restrictions will be observed," Williams writes in his 19-page ruling.

Nevertheless, Williams added a specific rider to the statutory ban that automatically applies to pre-trial hearings, barring publication or broadcast of any information that would identify Internet sites or other sources of prohibited information, including web addresses.

The defence noted last week that some Canadian news outlets pointed people to foreign websites where they could find banned information in past high-profile court cases.

Williams left open the possibility of imposing additional restrictions -- including on access to the courtroom -- if people don't comply with the ban.

"This court will be vigilant in protecting Mr. Pickton's rights to a fair trial and will treat failure to comply with publication restrictions seriously," Williams told the court.

He also set out guidelines if lawyers seek future bans, including issuing two days' notice to the media if possible and e-mailing the information to them. Where notice isn't possible, Williams said any bans he issues would be temporary unless confirmed after a full hearing.

Pickton, 55, is accused of killing more than two dozen women, mostly drug-addicted prostitutes, from Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside. More than 60 have disappeared from the neighbourhood since the early 1980s.

Lawyers for various news organizations argued the ban that chief defence lawyer Peter Ritchie was seeking was an unprecedented infringement of Charter guarantees to free expression, as well as being unworkable.

Crown prosecutor Mike Petrie agreed some form of publication ban is warranted but that Ritchie's request for a gag order was tantamount to closing the courtroom.

Williams's ruling sets an interesting precedent, said Heather MacConachie, lawyer for CityTV and CBC.

"What the judge is saying is you don't need special rules for high-publicity murder cases," she said outside the court. "The Criminal Code rules that apply are there to protect the accused's (right to) a fair trial and they don't need any further protection."

Media lawyers also pointed to the way Williams dealt with the potential threat of Internet publication, including a ban on reporting web addresses.

"That's to ensure that even if there is leaks of information out there that they stay pretty minimal, and we don't get a situation like what happened with the Gomery (sponsorship scandal) inquiry, where even though there was a publication ban the media mentioned an American site where people could find out what the testimony was about," said MacConachie.

Michael Skene, acting for CTV and the Globe and Mail, said this is the first instance he's seen of an order regarding directions to Internet sites.

"The point to these bans is that a lot of the information over the next few months may never get in front of the jury," he explained. "All of these types of bans are meant to protect a potential jury pool from hearing information they're not supposed to consider."

 Canadian Press 2005

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