Pickton preliminary looms with no defence lawyers

Judge suggests an adjournment to get a defence funding agreement but the accused wants the case to proceed

Neal Hall
Vancouver Sun

Friday, November 01, 2002

A B.C. Supreme Court judge suggested Thursday that accused serial killer Robert Pickton be asked whether he is willing to adjourn next week's preliminary hearing to allow more time for a defence funding agreement to be reached.

"I wish to have the matter resolved today. We've reached a preposterous state of affairs."

But Peter Ritchie, who withdrew three weeks ago as Pickton's lawyer over the lack of a funding agreement with the government, said Pickton wants the case to go ahead whether he has a lawyer or not.

B.C. Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Patrick Dohm adjourned the matter until 10 a.m. today at the Vancouver Law Courts until Ritchie can ask Pickton if he will agree to adjourn the matter for a week.

During Thursday's hearing, Ritchie said he could not accept a government offer for an interim 30-day funding agreement to pay for a three-lawyer defence team and a legal assistant.

He called the attorney-general ministry's offer "highly inadequate," adding it comes on the eve of Pickton's preliminary hearing on 15 courts of first-degree murder, which is set to begin Monday in Port Coquitlam.

He said the case -- the largest serial-killer investigation in Canada -- requires eight lawyers but he has scaled back his request to six, which is the minimum needed to handle the complexity of the defence.

"I wish to have the matter resolved today," Ritchie added, noting Pickton is prepared to represent himself at the preliminary hearing if no funding agreement is reached.

"We've reached a preposterous state of affairs," said Ritchie.

George Copley, the lawyer representing the attorney-general's ministry, told the court the government's offer is "adequate but not lavish."

He added: "What the accused is entitled to is a fair trial ... not a Cadillac defence."

Ritchie pointed out that the Crown has assigned three prosecutors and has had hundreds of police officers working for nine months on the case.

He said what he is asking for is considerably less than the rumoured funding arrangement made for the defence lawyers handling the Air India case.

The Air India defence team is reportedly being paid $1 million a month by the federal and provincial governments to defend three men accused of being involved in the bombing of an Air India flight, which killed all 329 people aboard.

Dohm asked what the funding arrangement was in the Air India case, but Copley said he could not reveal that information because it is not in the public domain.

Asked by the judge if he is prepared to accept the interim funding offer made by the government, Ritchie replied: "No, it would definitely not be fair."

The judge, after hearing from both sides, sat silently in court for several minutes thinking about the matter.

He then expressed regret that a funding arrangement couldn't be worked out on the eve of the preliminary hearing.

"It is regrettable to hear that there is such a difference of opinion as to what are the legal requirements to conduct the defence of this case," Dohm said.

Earlier, Ritchie had told Dohm that Pickton's defence team needs six lawyers, a legal assistant and a one-room office in Port Coquitlam, close to where the preliminary hearing will be held in the provincial courthouse.

Copley told Dohm that the government has offered Ritchie funding for 960 hours for three lawyers over a 30-day period. The government offered a 60-day interim agreement but Ritchie suggested it should be 30 days, he said.

The interim funding agreement would provide rates of $150 an hour for the lead defence counsel, $125 for the second lawyer working on the case and $72 an hour for a junior lawyer, Copley told the court.

The ministry has also authorized the Pickton defence team to hire a private investigator for 500 hours at $50 an hour, he added, and the government is willing to fund a legal assistant or document manager for the case.

If Ritchie finds the offer unacceptable, the government could seek to find another lawyer who would accept the funding arrangement, Copley suggested.

Ritchie responded by saying that it is uncertain how much more disclosure will be made by the Crown, adding there there could be a "deluge" of documents still to come.

"Our needs are not lavish," he added. "They are definitely realistic."

Ritchie and his colleague, Marilyn Sandford, withdrew as defence counsel on Oct. 11, although they have been negotiating with attorney-general ministry staff to try to arrange funding for defending Pickton, who claims he is virtually penniless.

On paper, Pickton co-owns property assessed in the millions of dollars. But it cannot be sold because it tied up by an intensive year-long search by a police task force, which is combing every square inch looking for human DNA.

Pickton earlier signed an indemnity agreement surrendering his assets and future income to the government.

Ritchie said Thursday that Pickton cannot afford to hire a forensic accountant to do a proper analysis of his assets. Copley said the government is willing to pay for its own investigation of Pickton's finances.

Since the search of Pickton's pig farm began in February, the murder counts against him have mounted. All of his alleged victims were on the list of 63 women who have disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in recent years.

Ritchie said he wants to argue a Rowbotham application, which demands that the charges be stayed in a case if the government does not fund the defence of a defendant, but the government has refused to fund the application hearing.

The Rowbotham principle was established in a 1988 Ontario Court of Appeal decision which found that an accused person who can't afford a lawyer can request government funding even if that person wouldn't normally qualify for legal aid. If the money isn't made available, the charges can be stayed by a judge.

 Copyright  2002 Vancouver Sun

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