Victims should not rule our courtrooms

Five year old Iraqi girl whose parents were killed by American soldiers

CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD

Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010

I woke up early one morning this week in my Belleville hotel room to an absolutely terrifying vision, and no, it wasn’t a nightmare about the killer Russ Williams.

The TV was blaring, of course, television being my version of the sleeping pill. It was tuned to CTV News Channel and the Toronto lawyer Tim Danson was being interviewed by my friend Paula Todd.

Mr. Danson famously represented the families of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, two of the three young women raped and killed by Paul Bernardo (egged on and joined by his then-wife Karla Homolka), and it was his motion that led to the key evidence at Mr. Bernardo’s trial (critically, the videotapes the pair had made of their attacks but also autopsy and crime-scene pictures, the trunk to which Ms. French had been tied, etc.) being secretly burned in 2001.

This burning ceremony, blessed by then Ontario attorney-general David Young and attended by police, Mr. Danson and the families, would have remained a secret had it not been for Donna French, Kristen’s mother, who felt that the Canadians who had supported the families throughout deserved to know they had found a measure of peace.

I thought it was outrageous – a grotesque betrayal of the notion that the best evidence should be preserved wherever possible, of the open court principle (defence lawyers weren’t invited to the torching) and of the idea that the role of the victim in criminal proceedings is a narrow one and should stay that way.

Anyway, so there I was, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes long before the sun was up, listening to Mr. Danson say that he believed the evidence in the Williams case should be burned too.

“I would think if they [the families of Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd] have all the facts,” Mr. Danson said, “they would want those videotapes [that Williams made of the attacks on the two women] destroyed.” A few minutes later he said it again: “In order to guarantee the victims they’ll never be violated again, these videotapes should be destroyed.”

Now, of the many troubling reasons this shouldn’t happen, the one that may be most germane at the moment is that it would further entrench the growing role of the victim.

I was an unofficial early victim-rights advocate, back in the day where they were ignored and ill-considered in the proceedings.

But that changed years ago, and now the victims of crime, or their surviving relatives, are not only accorded the respect they properly deserve, but also are treated with exquisite delicacy and empowered.

Probably I can live with the delicacy – the court-appointed pit bulls who accompany a victim’s every move, Kleenex at the ready; the reserved front-row seats – but the empowerment is alarming.

One thing that happened three times in Belleville this week illustrates it.

During the reading out of victim-impact statements – these are meant to describe the harm done to or loss suffered by a victim, not to vilify the already convicted – the packed courtroom twice broke into loud and sustained applause. It happened when Ms. Lloyd’s brother, Andy, and her mother, Roxanne. finished their statements.

Of course, these were moving and powerful, as their losses are the worst.

But it isn’t a moment for applause, and while I’ve seen a ripple of cheers go through other courtrooms, the judge usually smartly steps in and warns people to stop, if he didn’t warn them not to do it in the first place.

This time, Ontario Superior Court Judge Robert Scott didn’t say a word. Nor did he ever attempt to rein in the prosecutors, who were sometimes openly contemptuous of Mr. Williams. Who isn’t? Yet it isn’t the Crown’s role to treat any accused, least of all one who has pleaded guilty and already been convicted, to a public shaming, as a colleague once put it.

And when lead prosecutor Lee Burgess offered a brief closing statement, his remarks were also similarly greeted with cheers and applause.

In all the victim-impact statements – including those that weren’t read but are on the public record, most from those whose homes were broken into, their underwear stolen by Mr. Williams – there was a good deal of “I never hated anyone before but I hate Russell Williams.”

Again, these statements, as the instructions that accompany them specifically say, are supposed to be “about you, not the accused” and aren’t to “include vengeful comments.”

All of this feeds into the idea that the courts and trials are about “justice for Annie” or “justice for Bill’s family.” They aren’t.

If all our society wanted was justice for victims, we could mete it out ourselves, as they do in places like Afghanistan. Instead, we have collectively decided, as one of my friends once put it, that if you burn down my house, I don’t need to burn down yours – the system will investigate, prosecute and a judge or a judge and jury will figure out what’s fair. That’s the rule of law.

Finally, let me say one other thing: While there were of course victims in the Williams case, they are pretty easy to identify. If one did a little triage, it would go like this: First, the actual victims were Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd and the two women Mr. Williams assaulted, photographed and terrorized; next, the women whose homes he invaded and whose lingerie he stole (though these bizarre break-ins weren’t noticed or reported to police by fully 31 of the 48 homeowners involved).

You don’t get to claim victim status by merely reading or hearing about the case, or by seeing Mr. Williams’ picture, or from the periphery.

Canadians can do with a little toughening up. If Ms. Comeau could fight off Mr. Williams with her hands bound behind her back, her eyes covered, her body battered, to her last breath – and she did, a finer and more valiant soldier than her killer ever could have hoped to be – surely the rest of us can suck up this week of extraordinary sadness without collapsing.

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