Decision on new trial for Pickton could be months away

By Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News Service

March 25, 2010

OTTAWA Judges on the Supreme Court of Canada peppered Robert Pickton's lawyer with skeptical questions as he argued Thursday that the serial killer deserves a new trial because the judge in his case flubbed his instructions to the jury.

The court reserved its ruling after a two-hour hearing and it could be months before a decision is released.

Lawyer Gil McKinnon said that Pickton suffered a miscarriage of justice, but several judges appeared conflicted over whether the jury instructions were faulty and, even if they were, whether it would have made any difference in the verdict.

"I'm interested in your response to the Crown's submission that even if this had been a properly instructed jury, given what they call staggering evidence in the case . . . where is the prejudice or the miscarriage of justice that would justify overturning this verdict," Justice Rosalie Abella asked McKinnon.

Pickton, a pig farmer from Port Coquitlam, B.C., was sentenced to life imprisonment after a jury found him guilty in December 2007 of six counts of second-degree murder, with no chance of parole for 25 years.

The victims, female prostitutes, disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside from 1978-2001 and their butchered remains were found on his farm.

Crown lawyer Gregory Fitch told the Supreme Court that Pickton admitted to being the "head honcho" responsible for the deaths of the women.

A central issue in the appeal is whether Justice James Williams, who presided over the year-long trial, made a critical mistake when he instructed jury members that they could still convict Pickton, even if they decided he did not act alone but that he "actively participated" in the murders.

The judge's assertion, in response to a jury question after six days of deliberations, contradicted his earlier instruction that the jury had to conclude that Pickton was the "actual shooter."

While the Crown maintained during the trial that Pickton acted alone, luring the women to his farm where he killed them and butchered their bodies in his slaughterhouse, the defence had argued Pickton's farm "was a beehive of activity" and that other persons such as his friends Dinah Taylor and Pat Casanova could have killed the women.

"The overriding issue on this appeal is trial fairness," said McKinnon. "It is not enough for the Crown to say, oh well, there would have been a conviction in any event."

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, however, suggested that as long as the overall trial was fair, flawed jury instructions might not be enough to breach Pickton's charter rights.

"Another way of looking might be to say you have to . . . look at whether the trial as a whole is fair and then take the deficiency, such as it is, and put in the context of the trial as a whole and the evidence," she said. "You might be able to argue, I'm just putting this to you, that viewed in the agglomerate there was no miscarriage of justice."

Fitch conceded in the Supreme Court that the initial jury instructions were faulty and that the judge had a duty to clarify to the confused jury that Pickton needed only to have played an active role in the killings to be found guilty.

Fitch added, however, that the evidence against Pickton, a self-confessed killer, was so "overwhelming" that the jury instructions would not have changed the outcome.

The B.C. Court of Appeal upheld Pickton's conviction last year, but one judge dissented.

If Pickton wins a new trial, the Crown has said it may also proceed with another 20 murder charges, in addition to the original six.

Copyright (c) Canwest News Service

Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun



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