Experts see lengthy Pickton trial as test of jury system

Canadian Press

May 8, 2006

The possibility that a jury trial for accused serial killer Robert Pickton could last as long as two years will test the jury system and be an overwhelming burden on those selected, experts say.

"I wish them good luck finding 12 people who are prepared to sit on a jury for two years," says Toronto defence lawyer Steven Skurka.

"It's going to be an extraordinary challenge and really it would test the jury system. It's that onerous."

The two-year estimate was made Wednesday by Peter Ritchie, the lead defence lawyer for Mr. Pickton.

"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," Mr. Ritchie told Justice James Williams in B.C. Supreme Court.

Mr. Ritchie emphasized that his two-year figure was speculative, an estimate by the defence based on the Crown proceeding with the 26 murder counts against Mr. Pickton.

Mr. Ritchie told the court a two-year trial "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.

Mr. Skurka, who acted as counsel to the Ontario Crown Attorneys' Association at the Morin Inquiry and was lead counsel to John Paul Roby in the Maple Leaf Gardens sex-scandal case, recalled the reaction of potential jurors in the Gardens case.

"As soon as the judge in that case announced to the jury panel the length of the trial, people started to line up immediately to explain to the judge why they weren't able to sit on the jury," said Mr. Skurka.

That trial lasted six months and a jury was selected, but it took three days, said Mr. Skurka.

"Lawyers are known to be poor prognosticators of time and I'm no exception to that," said Mr. Skurka. "I'm sure it (Ritchie's estimation) is well-intentioned but if that jury panel is told that trial is going to take two years, you can imagine what you'll see.

"You're going to see people stand up and rise in unison and rush to tell the judge why they cannot appear."

A phase of the Pickton trial began in January that involves defence and Crown lawyers making arguments on what evidence should be admitted. The judge then decides what evidence can be put before a jury.

Mr. Pickton, who has been in custody since February 2002, faces 26 counts of first-degree murder related to dozens of women who went missing women from Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside.

Gerry Ferguson, a law professor at the University of Victoria, said the possibility of a two-year jury trial has to be unique.

"I think one can say without fear of contradiction that a two-year jury trial would be entirely unprecedented," he said.

The people who would most likely be able to sit as jurors are people who are retired or government employees who can collect regular salary, he said.

"These (jurors) are also going to be people who want to (be on the jury). Virtually anybody who is going to do it is going to have to be interested because it would be pretty hard to impose that responsibility."

But Mr. Skurka said while finding a jury for two years is difficult, it's not impossible.

"There are people who are retired that may be able to sit," he said.

"For the overwhelming majority of the population, whether they're mothers of young children or give up two years of your just an overwhelming hardship.

"Even if it's a year, it's still going to be a major problem."

Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Skurka said there may be a need for jury reform in Canada, at least to allow for alternates during the trial.

"You would have 12 jurors and the two alternates would be there in the courtroom. If the original 12 (hear the entire trial) the two alternates would not form part of deliberations."

Mr. Skurka said having jury alternates makes sense "particularly in a case like (Pickton) ... because it ensures that you preserve the trial."

In recent years, a committee established by federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for justice has looked at the problems associated with "mega-trials" such as the Pickton case.

The committee's final report was sent to the ministers in January 2005 and they sent the report to Justice Canada, where it now is under consideration.

One proposal was that 16 jurors be sworn in at the beginning of the trial and legislation changed to allow a minimum of eight jurors in order to render a verdict.

The committee, however, recommended that alternate jurors not be appointed for the duration of the trial. Instead, lawmakers should consider reducing to eight or nine the minimum number of jurors required to render a verdict.

Another recommendation called for lawmakers to consider appointing an alternate judge who would be kept informed of the proceedings and be able to step in if the trial judge was unable to continue.

Canadian Press



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