Pickton should face another trial

2008-02-28

in Canada, Law, Politics

PCO building, Ottawa

The decision of the British Columbia Attorney General not to prosecute 20 additional murder charges against Robert Pickton seems like a failure to strike the proper balance between the good use of government resources and the pursuit of justice. It has frequently been pointed out that had his victims been less marginalized members of society their initial disappearances would have been much more thoroughly investigated. Similarly, the failure of the police to appreciate what was occurring and put a stop to it over such a long period of time would have been deemed negligent and unacceptable. By choosing not to prosecute all the murders for which the Crown has evidence, the marginalization of these women is being further entrenched. It is inconceivable that the second trial would not occur if the victims had been wealthy residents of Shaughnessy or the British Properties.

The creation of a detailed public record of what transpired has societal value: both for those who knew the victims and for those who hope to improve the future operation of the police and justice systems. The argument for having a trial is therefore similar to the case I made previously for completing Slobodan Milosevic’s trial after his death. In such cases, the point is not to punish the offender; it is, rather, to make the facts of the situation known, demonstrate places where errors were made, and provide some guidance for future behaviour. On an important but less practical level, a second trial would also be an assertion of the equal human worth of the second group of victims: an especially important message to send given the ways in which the supposed equality of law is not always as meaningful or substantial as it ought to be.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Litty February 28, 2008 at 1:22 pm

One group to consider are the potential jurors. It would be hell to be selected for a trial like this: months of isolation, heaps of gruesome evidence, etc.

If he is already going to be in prison for life, perhaps it’s best not to subject innocent strangers to such unpleasantness.

Litty February 28, 2008 at 1:30 pm

One other thing (arguing the opposite position):

Not having a second trial is a kind of violation of the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’

Essentially, not pursuing a second trial assumes that Pickton was guilty of the additional murders. Otherwise, the authorities cannot claim to have properly acted on them. If they had no suspect at all, they would be obliged to keep looking.

Giving up the case because they think Pickton is already going to spend enough time in jail doesn’t satisfy a basic duty of investigation.

tristan February 28, 2008 at 12:53 pm

It’s a perhaps unfortunate but necessary aspect of living in a free society that some people’s speech, and lives in this case, are more important than others. It’s not an accident that the poor sometimes call the police the “Middle Class Mafia” – and this case illustrates the point beautifully.

I would not be surprised if the real motivating force behind the decision in the individuals who are actually making it is not the cash, but the desire for the story to go away. The longer the story stays in the public eye, the more people will demand that the Government re open the interpretation of the prostitution laws (if they were re-interpreted, it might be ruled that the value of peoples lives is more important than the social values the current restrictions purport to uphold – in fact the social value they uphold is that women in a position to work in the sex trade are of no value). This is much more explicitly a case of the British Properties versus the Downtown Eastside, or perhaps more to the point – the federal right voters base versus the sex workers (it might be the case that the British Properties voters are actually quite progressive – I don’t know).

Dylan February 28, 2008 at 3:28 pm

It seems to me that if these charges are being dropped, it is more likely that the Crown has decided they don’t have sufficient evidence to support the charges, than that they feel it would be redundant to prosecute a man who will probably spend the rest of his natural life in prison. The attorney general’s reasoning; that the public interest is best served by dropping these charges based solely on the presumption of Pickton’s guilt should offend anyone with a thirst for truth or justice. I also feel that Pickton’s trial and conviction were a mess and his appeal is much stronger than either the public or the media are acknowledging. The jury’s decision to convict him of second degree murder can be interpreted in a number of ways, but given the fact that they asked whether they could find him guilty even if they felt he had acted only indirectly in the murders, and given the vague and arguably incorrect answers the jury received regarding this point, it is not at all clear that the jury felt Pickton acted alone or indeed even directly. If it is the case that the court felt there were other perpetrators involved in these murders, perhaps even more directly involved than the accused then the public interest must be protected by pursuing clarity on these issues. The point of a trial is to determine the facts and provide clarity as to the guilt or innocence of the accused.

Sarah February 28, 2008 at 6:01 pm

I think you are all overlooking the possibility of a much simpler explanation: that the decision reflects the desire to use scarce resources as efficiently as possible. The province does not have unlimited money and staff hours for investigators, prosecutors, judges and juries – given this, they have to decide which cases are most important to proceed with, a decision which is partially based on the weight of evidence and the seriouness of the crime but is ultimately motivated by the desire to protect the public.

If Pickton has been convicted of several offences and is already serving a life term, then little further protection is afforded to the public by pressing further charges. On the other hand, there will be dozens of other cases (including serious violent crimes such as rape and assault) which are dropped every week because the caseload facing prosecutors is much greater than the number of cases which can be taken forward.

Unless you are willing to see other government services cut to provide more police, prosecutors and judges, and/or to pay considerably higher taxes, there is a need to accept that not all charges (not even all apparently serious charges with a chance of success) can be prosecuted.

Emily Horn February 28, 2008 at 8:21 pm

Tristan,

In what way is it a “necessary aspect of living in a free society that some people’s speech, and lives in this case, are more important than others”?

Tristan February 28, 2008 at 9:17 pm

If you have a free society, your free to decide who to listen to and who not to listen to. So, some peoples speech becomes more important than others. If the state forced you to not consider Donald Trump’s speech to be any more important than some guy on the street, then we wouldn’t have anything like a free society. We’d have some kind of crazy distopic egalo-topia. It also means your free to consider some peoples lives more important than others. I consider the life of my mother to be more important than some random person’s – and its the same for people I care about but who don’t care about me. For example, I consider Rick Mercer’s life to be more important than some random guy. This means I’d vote for the government that was more willing to allocate resources to prosecute the guy who kills Rick Mercer than the guy who kills some homeless people. They don’t matter as much because people don’t care about them as much. And this will be reflected in how justice is handed down.

So, you might respond, “I want to live in the state where RIck Mercer’s death is investigated with no more rigour than a prostitutes disappearance”. Well, to take a line from Sarah, the implication of this would be much higher taxes -equal justice for all in all cases would either mean a lot less justice in each particular case or a lot more money spent on justice. Both of these options seem pretty bad, we do want the state to have discretion where to deliver justice and where not to, and we want that to reflect the will of the people. However, since we live in a free society, some people’s speech is more important than others and that means that the people speaking from the British Properties are more important. So, their lives are more important.

Milan February 29, 2008 at 5:30 pm

So, you might respond, “I want to live in the state where RIck Mercer’s death is investigated with no more rigour than a prostitutes disappearance”. Well, to take a line from Sarah, the implication of this would be much higher taxes -equal justice for all in all cases would either mean a lot less justice in each particular case or a lot more money spent on justice.

The Pickton case is an exceptional occurrence. The fact that 26 women were killed (at least) before he got arrested suggests a major failure on the part of the authorities. As such, the expense of a trial is justified by a public interest that extends beyond the specific duty to investigate each of these murders individually.

Milan February 29, 2008 at 5:31 pm

Essentially, not pursuing a second trial assumes that Pickton was guilty of the additional murders. Otherwise, the authorities cannot claim to have properly acted on them. If they had no suspect at all, they would be obliged to keep looking.

This is a subtle and interesting argument. I like it. Essentially, not holding a second trial pins the murders on Pickton without due process of law.

tristan February 29, 2008 at 9:21 pm

I agree it assumes he is guilty of the additional murders – but does so in the same way that a state which does not uphold a rule of law makes such assumptions.

Sarah March 1, 2008 at 6:33 pm

The Pickton case is an exceptional occurrence. The fact that 26 women were killed (at least) before he got arrested suggests a major failure on the part of the authorities. As such, the expense of a trial is justified by a public interest that extends beyond the specific duty to investigate each of these murders individually.

This reasoning is wholly erroneous from the perspective of public safety. If the police and prosecutors budgets and manpower were increased according to requiremenys of prosecuting the additional charges, then pushing more Pickton convictions would be fine. Given that they are not, I think it is more important to prevent, identify and prosecute other violent crimes (including the large number of gaybashing in Vancouver) than to keep focusing on crimes committed by someone who is already incapacitated. I take Milan’s point that one needs to learn from the past, but many women in the Downtown Eastside are still very unsafe (largely as a result of the illegality of prostitution, rather than because of murderous individuals) and there comes a point where protecting the living must take precedence.

Milan March 12, 2008 at 4:46 pm

Sarah,

It is difficult to judge which option would be best for protecting those who are still alive. On the one hand, a new trial could waste resources. On the other, it could reveal unaddressed flaws and possibly even other people involved in the murders.

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