The New Westminster courthouse bristled with security precautions last week—including electronic metal detectors—as three men and two women prepared to stand trial on widely publicized charges in connection with the dynamiting of a Vancouver Island hydro substation, a series of fire-bomb attacks on a chain of Vancouver-area video stores and an alleged conspiracy to rob a Brink’s guard. But defence lawyers put the press on trial, arguing that earlier coverage of the case would make it impossible to find unbiased jurors. The defence then sought a stay in proceedings. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Toy rejected the motion but he eventually excused 16 prospective jurors on grounds that they were unalterably biased.
The five defence lawyers, all working for legal aid fees, have hammered away at the treatment of the defendants by both the police and the legal system. They have been particularly critical of the press coverage, and the judge banned re-publication of earlier reports that contained what he termed specific “buzz words” associated with the five.
The defence also called in expert witnesses to support the argument that publicity surrounding the case had biased prospective jurors. One of them, a former University of British Columbia sociologist now working in New York, Jay Schulman, said his telephone poll of about 450 people in the New Westminster Supreme Court district showed that 59 per cent of those interviewed thought the defendants were guilty.
Another defence witness, University of Western Ontario sociologist Neil Vidmar, declared that the sometimes hysterical media coverage was “the most extensive pretrial publicity I have ever seen.” In response, Toy later suggested that the trial might proceed by judge alone, but the defence rejected this idea.
Eight months have passed since the RCMP arrested the five accused on the Squamish highway north of Vancouver. But the three young men and two women have been at the centre of the controversy that began with the announcement of the action at an unusually descriptive RCMP press conference. That prompted the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to ask for a federal investigation of police procedure for holding press conferences. As well, members of some B.C. unions and other supporters of the accused have charged that the authorities abused their power by denying the accused bail and then bringing them to trial by direct indictment—thus bypassing a preliminary hearing in the case.
Even when the first trial ends, Juliet Belmas, 21, Gerald Hannah, 26, Ann Brit Hansen, 30, Douglas Stewart, 26, and Brent Taylor, 27, face additional charges.
With arguments about admissible evidence to come even before what promises to be a lengthy trial, the five young defendants face months of waiting behind the glass shields separating them from the spectators in Courtroom 2-9.
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