Judge in Robert Pickton serial murder case steps down over schedule conflict

Steve Mertl
Canadian Press

June 1, 2005

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. (CP) - The judge scheduled to hear Canada's biggest murder case was replaced Wednesday only a couple of days into pre-trial proceedings.

Justice Geoffrey Barrow of B.C. Supreme Court is stepping aside because of "scheduling problems" with accused serial killer Robert Pickton's trial and other cases, Associate Chief Justice Patrick Dohm told lawyers at a brief hearing.

Barrow, who normally is based in Kelowna, B.C., had just begun hearing arguments last week in a defence application for a strict publication ban on pre-trial proceedings in the sensational murder case.

Dohm said he'll be replaced by Justice James Williams, who normally sits in New Westminster's Supreme Court.

The lawyers were told by Dohm they should recap their arguments on the ban when the hearing resumes Friday.

"The court will not lose any real time in this change," he said.

Pickton, 55, faces 27 counts of first-degree murder in the disappearance of women from Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside, mostly in the 1990s.

He was arrested in February 2002 after police raided his suburban Port Coquitlam pig farm. Pickton was charged after a painstaking search for DNA from dozens of missing women, mostly drug-addicted prostitutes, who disappeared over a two-decade period.

He was committed to stand trial on a dozen counts after a six-month preliminary hearing in 2003 and 15 charges were added last week.

Pickton, wearing a grey and black striped shirt, quietly watched Wednesday's hearing via a video link from a suburban pre-trial centre where he is being held.

Neither Pickton's lawyer, Peter Ritchie, nor Crown prosecutor Mike Petrie would comment on the change of judges or the reasons behind it. But lawyers representing news organizations said they were surprised, given widespread understanding the case will go well into next year.

"I think everyone would have thought those sorts of issues would have been worked out before the trial started on (last) Wednesday," said Michael Skene, representing CTV and the Globe and Mail.

Dan Burnett, representing CBC and the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers, said he was baffled by the switch.

"I'm as curious as anybody else," he said in an interview.

But Skene added that if a change had to be made, this was a good time because Barrow had only presided over the case for two days, hearing arguments for and against the publication ban.

"Not much more than those two days will have been lost, aside from whatever background reading the judge might have done," said Skene.

Barrow, a former Crown prosecutor appointed to the bench in December 2001, was handed the Pickton case March 31.

He was scheduled to preside over defence applications for a publication ban and disclosure of Crown evidence, as well as evidentiary hearings this fall before the trial proper begins sometime in early 2006.

Williams was a prominent Vancouver criminal lawyer before being appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court in October 2002.

His clients included two of the 39 RCMP officers who were the subject of complaints after a police pepper-sprayed and arrested protesters at the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Conference summit in 1997.

Skene said Williams had experience with high-profile criminal cases as a lawyer, including issues around pre-trial publicity, and should have no trouble getting up to speed on arguments surrounding the publication ban in Pickton.

Ritchie had asked Barrow not only to ban publication of any potentially prejudicial evidence coming out of the disclosure and pre-trial hearings but also bar reporters or spectators to speak to anyone about what they heard to avoid information leaking onto the Internet.

He also suggested Barrow had the option of closing the hearings entirely.

Publication bans are commonly granted in jury trials, although Pickton has not yet pleaded nor decided whether he wants to be tried by a jury or a judge alone.

But media lawyers said Ritchie's application is unprecedented and would violate Charter guarantees of freedom of expression, which the Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed regarding court proceedings in a 1994 ruling.

 The Canadian Press 2005

Missing women's families remember their loved ones - May 26, 2005
Toronto Star
Now their are 27 victims - May 26, 2005

ctv  interactive

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