Taking the stand a terrifying task for witnesses

From the Toronto Star
Aug 07, 2009 04:30 AM
Peter Small
Courts Bureau

It took Nick almost two weeks to contact police after he witnessed a late-night stabbing on a TTC subway car.

He was worried the killer might be a gang member.

"It was very scary for me. I didn’t know the kind of people you were dealing with, whether the accused had the contacts to eliminate you," says Nick, who asked that his last name not be used.

When he finally worked up the courage to come forward, he ended up having to testify in court – a gruelling experience.

"It was difficult, unpleasant and exhausting," said the 42-year-old food services worker.

Some witnesses testify because it’s the right thing to do, others because they’re forced. For many, though, testifying is not easy. And some feel it comes at great risk.

Nick says he was on the stand for 4 1/2 hours at the second-degree murder trial of John Paul Vallon, much of that time spent under cross-examination.

As defence lawyer Heather Pringle painstakingly reviewed his testimony, he fought to maintain his version of events.

"It seemed like an eternity," Nick says.

Pringle was just doing her job, he says, but some of her questions seemed tricky, even outrageous.

"She was trying to break me," he said. "She wanted me to lose my composure but I stood firm."

Nick was sure he had seen Vallon, then 26, and the victim, Nick Brown, 21, pushing each other in an adjoining subway car in the early morning of April 13, 2007.

Brown broke away and sat down, then Vallon renewed the attack, Nick recalls.

Brown died of multiple cuts and stabs.

"He took his last breath. I saw that."

In June, Vallon was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Nick had been a key Crown witness.

Heather Sanders, manager of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program at the College Park courthouse, says many witnesses worry about inflaming the accused or others in the community.

"They’re not sure who’s in the courtroom … and who might be listening," Sanders said.

Some are even afraid to leave the courthouse after testifying.

Others worry they will become emotional on the stand, or are anxious about being misinterpreted or having what they say twisted, Sanders says.

While some testify out of a sense of duty, others want to make it plain that they are doing so only because they are being forced.

"Sometimes that’s important for a witness to convey the fact that they are required to be there."

Some take it personally when defence lawyers probe.

"We try to help them understand why those tough questions might be asked and to prepare yourself as best you can and obviously to be … open and honest about things. That usually assists a lot."

Prosecutors often meet with witnesses before they testify, but not to coach them on what to say. Crown attorneys may let the witness know what generally happens in a courtroom, update them on the case or let them review their previous statements.

Oliver Bertin, a 60-year-old writer and editor, was called to testify about being robbed by a youth outside an ATM machine.

Bertin said he found the experience of testifying embarrassing. "You don’t know what they are going to ask you," he said.

"You know if you make a mistake they’re going to cross-examine you. You have to be very careful."

Bertin had been withdrawing $500 from a bank machine on St. Clair Ave. W. near Vaughan Rd. in August 2007 when six to eight youths banged on the glass to be let into the vestibule.

He put his money into an envelope, stuffed it into a pocket, and opened the door to leave. Several youth rushed in.

Before he knew it, one of them had followed him, grabbed the money from his pocket and fled.

Bertin was called to testify at the trial of a 19-year-old man accused of stealing the money, among several other robberies.

The accused was alleged to be part of a gang, which police compared to a pack of wolves that swarmed, robbed and assaulted more than two dozen people in Toronto that summer.

Bertin wasn’t sure if the security photos he was shown in court matched the hooded youth he recalled snatching his money.

"He ran very fast," Bertin told prosecutor Kevin Stewart.

As he testified, Bertin was aware that the accused’s future was at stake. He wanted to be fair. The accused looked like the teen who followed and robbed him, but bigger and heavier.

"You don’t want to blame the kid if it’s not him," Bertin confided.

Bertin remembered that his assailant had a grey hoodie.

Security photos of the young men in the bank, however, showed them wearing black hoodies.

At the same trial, Michael Hyde, 18, testified that on July 30, 2007, he and his friends were celebrating a birthday in Riverdale Park when a gang of 15 or so young men swarmed and robbed them.

He told court that he had feared one of them would pull a weapon.

Hyde found testifying a little intimidating.

"Just before you get up on the stand, your blood starts to rush," he said.

It happened so long ago and he hadn’t seen any of the robbers’ faces, so he couldn’t identify his assailant.

"You get a tense feeling when you see someone who possibly robbed you."

But once on the stand, Hyde said he felt confident.

The youth at whose trial Bertin and Hyde testified was convicted in June of two of several robberies in which he had been charged, but neither of the ones in which Bertin or Hyde were victims.


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