Heavy prep work needed for Pickton trial: lawyer


February 12, 2006

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. (CP) - The four years between the arrest of accused serial killer Robert Pickton and the start of his trial reflects the magnitude of material the defence faced in preparing for a case that is on a scale matched by few others in Canadian history, says Pickton's main lawyer.

Peter Ritchie has practised law for more than three decades and has worked on hundreds of civil and criminal cases as a prosecutor and defender.

"The volume and workload in this (Pickton trial) probably surpasses all others with the exception of a very few in Canadian history," he told The Canadian Press during a break in court proceedings.

Even with at least seven lawyers working on the defence team, Ritchie conceded there are "considerable challenges to organizing a defence."

"We have received hundreds of thousands of pages of disclosure from a very long and complex investigation and we have to set about organizing all of that," he said.

Pickton, 56, was arrested in February 2002 after police went on to a property in Port Coquitlam owned by him, his brother and sister. He was initially charged with two counts of first-degree murder and that later increased to 15.

Last year, the Crown added 12 more counts. He has pleaded not guilty.

Pickton is accused of killing women, many of them sex-trade workers, who were mostly from the tough Downtown Eastside. More than 60 have disappeared from the neighbourhood since the early 1980s.

The trial in B.C. Supreme Court in this city southeast of Vancouver is hearing legal arguments on the admissibility of evidence. This stage, which is taking place under a publication ban, could last several months, after which a jury will be chosen to hear the case.

Despite the huge task of organizing a defence, Ritchie discounts any notion his defence team is at a disadvantage.

Defence lawyers sometimes can reasonably claim a disadvantage if legal aid systems are strained for funds or defence teams aren't given the financial resources enjoyed by the Crown, he said.

"In this particular case, because of the manner in which the funding was organized, I would say that we do not complain about having a disadvantage and that we should not complain about having a disadvantage."

He said that the trial is "being funded by the government after our client ceded all of his interests in his property to the government and so indirectly it's being paid for by the client."

A Canadian Press story last August outlined how the B.C. government had put a mortgage worth $10 million on the property to cover his defence. Pickton owns one-third of the property along with equal shares for his brother and sister.

Ritchie said the large defence team is necessary.

The alternative would be waiting several more years for his trial to begin, he said.

"If Mr. Pickton only had one lawyer, that lawyer would be reading this (investigation's) disclosure material for years and the matter would never get to court," he said.

"So there are efficiencies that have to be engaged here."

Ritchie told reporters outside court at the start of the trial on Jan. 30 that the defence team has to deal with 750,000 pages of material disclosed by the Crown, a judicial prerequisite in any trial.

"'We look at this material, analyze it, work at it very hard and try to maximize efficiencies. One lawyer couldn't do it for years and years, many more years than have gone by to date."

The prominent Vancouver lawyer, who earned his law degree at Osgoode Hall in Toronto and was appointed Queen's Counsel in December, suggested the case has had its share of tribulations.

"We have had numerous difficulties in dealing with what we think the Crown should disclose and what the Crown thinks they should disclose."

Those discussions, however, have been played out much more in private meetings between the two sides, thereby avoiding even more court time.

"'We've worked most of that out through lengthy meetings with the Crown so we haven't had to take the matter to court very much," said Ritchie.

Pickton is required to attend court. He sits stoically each day in the prisoner's box. The courtroom and public gallery are separated by a bullet-proof glass wall.

He has not yet elected whether to be tried by jury or judge alone but Ritchie has said outside court that he will have a jury trial.

Canadian Press



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