It’s a subversive twist to one of the most complex, convoluted legal proceedings in modern Canadian history: the friends and family of some 20 alleged murder victims, most of them siding — for the moment, at least — with the lawyers who represent serial killer Robert Pickton.
The gut-wrenching paradox, rooted in the former pig farmer’s conviction in December, 2007, on just six counts of second-degree murder, has left them with a difficult choice: another long struggle toward justice for their loved ones versus the gratification of seeing legal closure.
The B.C. Court of Appeal will rule Thursday on appeals from both Mr. Pickton’s defence lawyers and the Crown. Mr. Pickton’s counsel is appealing his convictions, arguing — among other things — that the trial judge made mistakes in his instructions to the jury.
The Crown has launched a counter-appeal of the judge’s decision to split the 26 murder charges originally laid against Mr. Pickton into two separate trials. Crown lawyers say they won’t pursue a second trial if the six original murder convictions are allowed to stand.
For those who want a verdict in the deaths of the remaining 20 women, it all boils down to the lesser of two evils.
“We would hate to see Pickton actually win his appeal, but we want him to — only because that is the only way we foresee the other 20 girls getting justice,” said Lori-Ann Ellis, whose sister-in-law Cara Ellis is among the outstanding cases.
Cara Ellis was 25 when police say she was last seen in January, 1997.
Dianne Rock was nearly one decade older, 34, when the mother of five vanished in October, 2001.
Her sister, Lilliane Beaudoin, said it’s not easy pulling for Mr. Pickton’s defence team, but she believes it’s her only choice.
“This way, at least I have some kind of hope that there’s going to be a second trial and that my sister’s case will be in the second trial,” Ms. Beaudoin said.
“It’s sad to say. Usually I would go for the Crown counsel, but not in this case.”
Ms. Beaudoin said while having the convictions tossed out would undoubtedly be difficult for the families of the six women involved, it may be equally difficult for the families of the 20 women to be left in limbo.
“We need the justice that they received,” she said.
Mr. Pickton was convicted in December, 2007, and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years in the killings of Mona Wilson, Sereena Abotsway, Andrea Joesbury, Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe, and Marnie Frey.
For Ms. Frey’s stepmother, Lynn, there’s no question whom she’s pulling for.
“I definitely root for the 20,” she said. ”Even if I hadn’t known those people personally, if I hadn’t met them at the trial, I would have thought the same thing.
“It’s totally unfair. They need accountability, they need justice and they need their day in court, just like anybody else.”
Ms. Frey, who’s been fighting to reclaim her stepdaughter’s remains from the massive collection of evidence in the Pickton case, said while a second trial would delay that quest, it’s a sacrifice she’d be willing to make.
“It is a no-win situation,” she said. “If they said we’re going to have another trial, then I’ll suck it up and wait for the next trial … the pain that they’re going through is atrocious.”
Not everyone is as ready to see the case go to trial for the second time.
Sarah de Vries disappeared in April 1998, one month shy of her 29th birthday, and is one of the 20 women on the list for a possible second trial. Her friend, Wayne Leng, said though he’s conflicted at times, he doesn’t really want the court proceedings to go that far.
“Pickton can’t get any more time than he’s already gotten,” Mr. Leng said. “He’s going to be in jail for life.”
Mr. Leng stressed that he is 100 per cent behind the families hoping for a second trial. He simply isn’t convinced that more court proceedings would provide any greater sense of closure for the loss of his friend.
“They’ve got the guy,” he said. “They’ve nailed him. … I don’t know how I would feel any different with him absolutely being found guilty of her murder.”
For Ms. Beaudoin, however, it’s important that the circumstances that led to her sister’s death be part of the public record.
“This is why I want a trial for my sister,” she said.
“My sister is gone. I want the man who supposedly has done this to her to be accountable for it. You just don’t press charges of first-degree murder against a man and then not go forward.”
Mr. Pickton was arrested in February, 2002, setting off a massive search of his property in Port Coquitlam, B.C., where investigators found body parts, blood samples, fragments of bone and the belongings of victims.
The Crown is appealing Mr. Pickton’s acquittal on six first-degree murder charges, but Crown prosecutor Gregory Fitch has said he would prefer to see the second-degree murder convictions stand and Mr. Pickton simply remain in prison, his legal saga over.
Mr. Fitch did express concern about the possibility of the appeal court denying Mr. Pickton’s appeal while at the same time granting that of the Crown, which could have the unintended effect of requiring a new trial the Crown doesn’t want.
Should that happen, Mr. Fitch said he would ask the court to stay the order for a new trial.
Mr. Pickton’s defence lawyers told the Appeal Court that there was a lot of confusion among jury members on the question of whether Pickton acted alone.
Lawyer Gil McKinnon said that confusion only got worse after the jury asked a question of the trial judge six days into deliberations.
“At least one or more jurors seemed to be having difficulty on whether Robert Pickton was the sole shooter of the three women,” Mr. McKinnon said in late March, referring to the murders of Ms. Wilson, Ms. Abotsway and Ms. Joesbury.
The women’s severed heads were found on Mr. Pickton’s farm. Each woman had been shot.
Six days into jury deliberations, Justice James Williams changed his instructions to the jury, saying he had been “not sufficiently precise” and “in error” in three paragraphs of his original charge.