Media admitted to Pickton hearing, judge rules

Toronto Star

Friday, December 6, 2002

PORT COQUITLAM, B.C. (CP) The preliminary hearing for the man accused of killing 15 of Vancouver's missing women will be open to the media and the public, provincial court Judge David Stone ruled today.

Felicity Don/CP. DAY IN COURT: An artist's sketch shows accused serial killer Robert Pickton seated in court during a preliminary hearing in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Nov. 5, 2002 

The defence had argued Robert Pickton's right to a fair trial would be put in jeopardy by allowing the media and public to attend the hearing.

But Stone said he was not prepared to accept that the justice system is that fragile.

Pickton, a Port Coquitlam pig farmer, is charged with killing 15 women who are among 63 identified as missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Since February, a farm owned by Pickton and two siblings has been sealed off as investigators sift through tonnes of dirt searching for DNA and human remains. Police have already disclosed that DNA from many missing women has been found at the farm.

The preliminary hearing, where evidence will be divulged under a publication ban, is scheduled to begin Jan. 13.

Stone made his ruling after three days of submissions from Pickton's lawyer, the Crown and several lawyers who represented a number of Canadian and American media outlets.

Ritchie had made the unusual application to have reporters and the public, including family members of the victims, excluded from the courtroom for the entire preliminary hearing that is scheduled to begin in January and last more than three months.

His application was made under Section 537 of the Criminal Code, which gives the judge the power to close the courtroom to everyone except the prosecutor, the accused and his counsel "where it appears to him that the ends of justice will be best served by so doing."

The Crown and the media lawyers opposed the application.

The primary concern, said Ritchie, is to ensure the eventual selection of 12 jurors who would not be tainted if evidence was to leak out during the preliminary hearing.

Ritchie said his concern was not directed at Canadian media outlets who have a record of respecting publication bans that are routinely imposed when evidence is presented at preliminary hearings.

U.S. media outlets, however, have shown intense interest in the Pickton case and their broadcasts and newspapers are readily available in the Greater Vancouver area. The court has no jurisdiction over the U.S. media outlets, said Ritchie.

Members of the public also have access to Internet Web sites and it might be difficult if not impossible to trace the origins of evidence at a preliminary hearing that ended up on the Internet, he said.

At the hearing in this suburb east of Vancouver, there were representatives of several U.S. and international media outlets in attendance, including The Associated Press, Agence France Press, Reuters, the Washington Post, the Hollywood Reporter and some Seattle-based TV stations.

In their arguments, Canadian media lawyers argued that their clients play a crucial role in providing information about court proceedings to the public and reporters must not be excluded from the preliminary hearing even though it is held under a publication and broadcast ban.

Reporters would still be able to gather information that might not be introduced during the trial and publish it once the trial has ended.

Lawyer Barry Gibson said Canadian reporters are aware they can't publish evidence presented during a preliminary hearing and would be subject to contempt charges if they broke the ban.

Lawyer David Sutherland spoke on behalf of four Seattle TV stations and told the court that his clients would not broadcast evidence from the preliminary hearing unless they could guarantee it would be blocked out in areas in Canada where their signals reach.

The judge heard conflicting submissions, however, on that matter.

Ritchie produced a letter from Shaw Cable, which brings the Seattle TV stations into Greater Vancouver, that said blocking the signals would be difficult if not impossible. Sutherland produced a letter in which the U.S. stations said it could be done.

He also expressed concern about evidence being disseminated on the Internet, or by other U.S. media outlets not represented in court.

Ritchie reminded the court of some of the difficulties an Ontario court faced during the pre-trial and trial hearings involving Karla Homolka, the wife of Paul Bernardo who was convicted of killing two teenage girls.

The judge in that case banned the U.S. media from the Homolka hearings but information leaked out on Internet bulletin boards and news groups that contained allegations about Bernardo, whose trial followed Homolka's, said Ritchie.

In his closing argument, Ritchie tried to get the judge to issue a temporary ban so he could outline some of what the Crown is expected to say about Pickton when the preliminary hearing begins.

He told the court that there will be evidence at the preliminary of "an exceedingly grim nature."

The judge declined to issue the temporary ban, saying he could not issue a ban then lift it so his decision on Ritchie's application could be made public.

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Updated: August 21, 2016