Legal observers say Crown could drop weakest charges against Pickton; add others

Canadian Press

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

VANCOUVER (CP) - The Crown could drop the weakest of 15 first-degree murder charges against accused serial killer Robert Pickton and add the strongest of an additional seven a judge has heard evidence on, say some veteran legal observers.

CREDIT: BCTV News on Global

Accused serial killer Robert Pickton, in a court sketch.

"They can do it any time they want," said Mark Jette, a prominent Vancouver defence lawyer.

"The Crown has the power to stay proceedings at any time up to the point that a judge or jury says not guilty or guilty. They can structure however many they want and choose not to prosecute others."

Jette is not involved in the case involving Pickton, the country's worst accused serial killer.

"I don't know (the Crown's) tactical thinking but the obvious answer is they're going to try to figure out what their best case is and go with their best case because it's a cleaner and more efficient way to prosecute."

The lead Crown prosecutor in the Pickton case, Mike Petrie, cautioned the public should not read too much into the number of charges laid so far.

"There are a number of considerations that we have to analyse before we decide what this is going to look like," said Petrie.

"It makes sense to take the time to review what we have and ensure that whatever we do end up with is going to stand the test."

In July, following a preliminary hearing that began in January, provincial court Judge David Stone committed Pickton to stand trial on 15 first-degree murder charges.

The judge, however, said in his ruling that had the preliminary hearing begun a month later than it did, he would have committed Pickton to trial on 22 first-degree murder charges.

The preliminary hearing was conducted under a sweeping publication ban that prohibits the media from publishing or broadcasting evidence from the hearing.

The charges against Pickton relate to a continuing investigation into a long list of missing women, most of whom disappeared over the last 20 years from an area preferred by hookers in the notorious Downtown Eastside.

Investigators have been at the former pig farm since police swooped down on the site in early February 2002.

Robert Mulligan, a Victoria lawyer and former Crown prosecutor, agreed the Crown might be considering dropping some of the initial 15 and adding others.

"They're not bound to proceed on charges even where there's been an order to stand trial," said Mulligan.

"So you could have a combination indictment that's got some in which the person was ordered to stand trial and some in which they were not," he said.

"Or you could even conceivably have a case where a direct indictment is preferred for counts that weren't addressed at all at the preliminary hearing but that subsequent evidence has come forward and is regarded as the best basis to proceed on."

A direct indictment means an accused goes to trial on charges without first having had a preliminary hearing.

About 30 members of the families of some of the victims met earlier this week with investigators from the missing women's joint task force.

Among their questions was why additional charges hadn't been laid against Pickton in light of what the provincial court judge said at the preliminary hearing.

Another consideration facing the Crown in this massive investigation might be simple pragmatism: time and money.

"There is the length of the trial to be considered," said Jette, noting the Crown at trial must lead evidence for each charge laid and the defence must defend each charge.

"There is the cost of the defence and the prosecution. These cases become so unwieldy when you add so many counts."

Mulligan also addressed the pragmatic side of the case, saying that while the Crown doesn't want to discount the seriousness of a murder or the feelings of relatives, it's not necessary for the Crown to prosecute every offence.

"After you get to a certain point it's going to make no difference in terms of the sentence," he said.

"But it might make a great deal of difference in terms of the length of the trial, evidentiary difficulties and other complications."

Phillip Laird, a jury expert and professor of psychology at Trinity Western University in the Fraser Valley, agreed the massive cost of the investigation and trial must also be a factor in the Crown's indictment strategy.

The length of the investigation of Pickton and the missing women's case in general will cost taxpayers as much as $70 million when the final bills are in, Solicitor General Rich Coleman said recently.

Laird has no problem with taxpayers spending whatever amount to ensure that an investigation is thorough and complete.

"But if there's no net benefit to society and we continue to spend taxpayers' dollars that could be spent in other ways, the question on a pragmatic side is, is that in the best interests of society?"

Pickton is charged with the murders of Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Diane Rock, Jacqueline McDonell, Heather Bottomley, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Wolfe, Jennifer Furminger, Helen Hallmark, Patricia Johnson, Georgina Papin, Heather Chinnock, Tanya Holyk, Sherry Irving and Inga Hall.

 Copyright  2003 Canadian Press

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Updated: August 21, 2016