Why they died

National Post

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The commencement of the trial of Robert Pickton has presented the National Post, like other Canadian news organizations, with a dilemma not easily resolved. We have a duty to report the evidence and the process as fully as possible, not only because criminal justice must be conducted in public to be credible, but because a fair account of Mr. Pickton's defence becomes impossible if our picture of the Crown's case becomes distorted in editing. All the instincts we bring to bear as journalists militate against euphemism and concealment of the facts. But we can never forget that our product ends up in the home or, indeed, that it is practically designed to be used over breakfast. We hope our combination of warnings on the print page and Web pointers for the most traumatizing details will address the challenge adequately.

If both readers and journalists examine our reactions to the trial honestly, however, it is possible they may find that it is not only our stomachs that are protesting against hearing the details; it is also our consciences, stubbornly refusing to recognize that such a sequence of horrors is possible.

It was in April, 1999 -- more than eight years after relatives and advocates of missing Vancouver prostitutes began to organize and call for an investigation -- that the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) awakened to the problem and issued a public plea for information. By then the number of missing women was probably already over 40. The VPD made little headway, even though the murders continued, until the RCMP approached them to restart a "stalled" investigation and form a task force early in 2001.

And in the end, it still took a simple fluke -- a visit to Mr. Pickton's farm and a chance discovery by Coquitlam Mounties wielding a firearms warrant -- to connect the platoons of dead women to a suspect (one who had already been investigated and provisionally exonerated). Since Mr. Pickton is entitled to the presumption of innocence, it should be pointed out that the horror of all this will hardly be lessened if his lawyers show that he has been the victim of some outrageous error; it would, rather, be magnified considerably if the city and the police force had to return to square one.

Technical reasons have been cited for the relative freedom in which the killer or killers of these women was able to operate for so long, and for the slowness of the investigation once it was undertaken seriously. One of the RCMP task force members, for example, complains of delays caused by an "ill-supported" computer system being used by the VPD in early 2001. No doubt his complaint is quite accurate -- but no one can possibly doubt, either, that a determined murderer who was hunting down lawyers or doctors or policemen, or even lowly fast food workers, would have created a public sensation and been caught much sooner, with or without computer help. The real reasons for the horrors now being visited upon us through the eye of the news media are social, not technical.

As VPD Inspector John McKay told a radio station yesterday, action was slow because the department was "complaint-driven." Homeowners and shopkeepers "would say I want the women ? gone because it's negative on my business, has a negative effect on the business, so we would put pressure on sex trade workers and we'd move them around from place to place." This is why the police were uncertain for so long whether missing prostitutes had left town or been exterminated; the police, who did no more than follow the law's dictates and the wishes of the taxpaying public, goaded and harassed them beyond the protection of that selfsame law.

They were put out of sight and out of mind -- until now. And although the circumstances of their demise are hideous to contemplate, either in a courtroom or over the kitchen table, we must surely hesitate before thrusting these poor women out of sight one last time. And perhaps we ought to consider just how rarely European cities with legal red-light districts wake up and find four or five dozen women simply "gone" without trace or explanation.

Whoever committed these murders took advantage of the fact that prostitutes live in a dangerous, shadowy, illegal netherland, a place from which people can be removed by a homicidal maniac without much notice. Whatever the outcome of this trial, it is time for that to change. Our laws must be amended so that prostitutes may ply their unfortunate trade without becoming strangers to the law, and to the policemen who are supposed to protect all of us from this sort of unthinkable crime.

 National Post 2007




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