Focusing on a sordid tale of murder

SHERRI AIKENHEAD January 20 1986

Focusing on a sordid tale of murder

SHERRI AIKENHEAD January 20 1986

Focusing on a sordid tale of murder


For three months a Supreme Court of Ontario jury of 10 men and two women has listened to testimony from convicts, self-confessed drug addicts, procurers and prostitutes. Eighty-four witnesses in all have testified about the character and alleged crime of Helmuth Buxbaum, a 46-year-old millionaire nursing-home

owner from Komoka, Ont., 20 km west of London, on trial for arranging the roadside slaying in 1984 of his wife, Hanna, 48. Then, late last month Toronto defence lawyer Edward Greenspan made a dramatic pledge to exonerate Buxbaum, an undertaking guaranteed to increase interest in a man, Greenspan said, whose “appetite for cocaine and women has been exposed to the public gaze.” Last week, as Greenspan steered his complicated defence through a confusing series of examinations and cross-examinations, the sensational trial continued to capture national headlines. Declared London Free Press reporter Chip Martin: “If this doesn’t shake the image of London as a conservative city, nothing will.” Buxbaum has been in custody since July, 1984, after he told police that he and his wife had stopped their car on Highway 402 near their home to help two apparently stranded motorists— who then shot the woman in the head.

But as one of the country’s strangest murder mysteries and longest murder trials unfolds, some criminal lawyers are voicing concerns that high-profile media coverage of sensational trials like Buxbaum’s hampers the rights of the accused to a fair trial. Toronto criminal lawyer David Cole, for one, said that even the name of the accused

should not be publicized unless the person holds public office and the charge relates to his or her positon. Added Cole: “A charge against a person is merely an allegation, and until anything is proven, a person should be protected from having it discussed in

public.” And last week _

Buxbaum’s 18-year-old son, Phillip, testified that Buxbaum had planned an escape from prison because he believed the press had convicted him even before the trial started.

Added the younger Buxbaum: “The press had it in for him, and the public was against him.”

Murder, sex and drugs have always caught the attention of the popular press. But since the slaying of Ontario real estate developer Peter

Demeter’s wife, Christine, in 1973, more serious-minded journalists and authors have begun attending sensational murder trials in increasing numbers. It was also Edward Greenspan who defended Demeter, convicted in 1974. At the end of their unsuccessful appeal the lawyer asked, “What is it about this case that fascinates people?”

Lineups of curious spectators and reporters were also a daily feature of the 1984 trial of former Saskatchewan cabinet minister Colin Thatcher. Buxbaum’s trial has been saturated by media coverage and, like Thatcher, he will be the subject of at least three books (the Demeter case led to only one).

Because of the widespread publicity surrounding the Buxbaum trial, it was moved from London to St. Catharines, Ont., 180 km away. But many reporters followed, and they still gather at the Parkway Inn, a brown-brick building that is

1 part of a restaurant-bowling al§ ley complex. In fact, the Crown Í lawyers, defence, police and

2 even some of the witnesses I have made the economical mo| tel their home. The length of I the trial has resulted in a close5 knit Buxbaum clique. Toronto

Gooderham, who says that hav-

ing all parties involved at the same motel is like “having an encyclopedia outside your door,” described the arrangement as a “little family.”

Nightly, members of the group retire to the motel bar, Buddies, where they have written a few songs about

_ Buxbaum, one a “Buxi”

version of “Hello Dolly.” But there, everything is off the record. CBC TV reporter Ted Bissland, who often entertains his motel mates around a mini-bar in his room, said that initially there was “a great deal of suspicion about the Toronto media.” But he added, “We have developed a comfortable relationship and now we wine and dine together.” The cozy inn atmosphere led Greenspan to ask the motel’s owner to install

the media on a separate floor to maintain some distance between the observers and the participants.

For his part, Martin, who has reported the Buxbaum affair for the Free Press since the preliminary hearing in December, 1984, says that his coverage has included only three defence-oriented stories among the 48 that he has written during the trial because Crown testimony has provided the most interesting stories. As well, he pointed out that there have been nine weeks of prosecution evidence so far, but only two weeks of defence. For his part, Earl Levy, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, says that because most defence lawyers are increasingly concerned about media coverage, they tend to neglect cross-examinations.

He added that the Buxbaum trial is experiencing the same problem. Levy told Maclean’s, “If he is found not guilty, the population will be astounded, given the way the case has been reported.” But Levy, like many other defence lawyers interviewed, added that headline writers are often responsible for much of the one-sidedness. When prosecution witness Terry Armes, 36, of London testified that Hanna Buxbaum turned to her husband on the highway and said, “No, honey, please, not this way,” a quote that many papers headlined, the defence’s five-hour cross-examination received scant coverage in most publications, including Maclean ’s.

No fewer than five journalists say that they plan to write books on the trial. One is Toronto Star reporter Heather Bird, whom Key Porter Books commissioned after the success of her first book, Not Above the Law, an account of the brutal murder of Thatcher’s ex-wife, JoAnn Wilson—a work that she completed in only 11 days. Gooderham says that she is considering a similar venture and that she has been encouraged by many people “because it has become the vogue thing to do.” Douglas Gibson, publisher of Macmillan of Canada, said the books sell well because “society stages few other dramas, and murder trials are set up as good theatre.”

There will undoubtedly be abundant material for media theatre when Buxbaum himself takes the stand as the last witness. Because the matter is still before the courts, Greenspan will not comment on the trial. But he left little doubt that he had a new trial of a different sort in mind when he told Maclean’s, “When it is all over, I will have plenty to say about the media coverage.”