In 1982, the case of a New Brunswick man accused of strangling an 80-year-old woman was a major story for reporters working in the U.S. border town of Madawaska, Me., (population 5,000). As the local correspondent for the biggest newspaper in the state, the Bangor Daily News, journalist Beurmond Banville made the two-kilometre drive across the border to Edmunston, N.B., to cover the preliminary murder hearing. The Canadian judge issued a ban on publication of the proceedings, a normal order for a preliminary hearing. But, as an American, Banville thought that he was exempt from the order and reported details of that day’s testimony in his paper, which was distributed in Edmunston. That week, the RCMP charged Banville with contempt of court. He voluntarily returned to Canada for trial, and was found guilty—although he later received a discharge. “You have to be very careful when you’re reporting in Canadian courts,” said Banville, now 48. “They will convict an American journalist for breaking their rules.”
A LURID CASE DRAWS LEGIONS OF REPORTERS; LAWYERS FIGHT TO GUARANTEE FAIR TRIALS
That could be a useful caveat for Banville’s counterparts in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, N.Y., who may face a publication ban in an even bigger Canadian crime story—that of Paul Jason Teale and his estranged wife, Karla Homolka. Teale, formerly known as Paul Bernardo, faces two counts of first-degree murder in the sex slayings of two southern Ontario teenagers in 1991 and 1992. The 28-year-old also faces 43 sexassault charges for a series of rapes that took place between 1983 and 1990 in Toronto. His 23year-old wife will go to trial on June 28 on manslaughter charges for her alleged role in the crimes, but Teale’s lawyer has applied for a publication ban on any details that might come out at her trial until Teale himself has had his day in court—next year at the earliest. While Canadian journalists would be strictly bound by such a ban, reporters from the other side of the border may try to get around it. “My journalistic instinct is to go ahead and report everything, but we haven’t made a final decision,” declared Stevan Van Vliet, news director for Buffalo TV station WKBW. “Our lawyers are researching what would happen if we violated a ban.”
It is not surprising that Van Vliet and his competitors want to keep their audiences up to date on the Teale-Homolka saga. The case promises to be one of the most sensational crime stories in
Canadian history, and has already sent writers and producers on both sides of the border scurrying to nail down book and movie deals. But Canadian legal experts say that the enormous attention the case has received so far may have already damaged Teale’s constitutional right to a fair trial—and that the judge in Homolka’s hearing would be justified in issuing a publication ban. The problem is that western New York media organizations have large followings in the Niagara peninsula, and if they publish or transmit any of the banned proceedings they could influence potential jurors for Teale’s trial.
“I grew up in Niagara Falls and the American television channels are the stations of choice there,” says Toronto lawyer Brian Greenspan, chairman of the Canadian Council of Criminal Lawyers’ Association. “A publication ban which
does not extend to the American media is a very hollow ban, given the realities of life in the Niagara peninsula.”
Greenspan’s brother Edward faced that dilemma in 1982, when the celebrated criminal lawyer defended a Toronto woman accused of killing her two-month-old son by tossing the baby into Niagara Falls. An Ontario Provincial Court judge ordered a publication ban at the preliminary hearing. But when Greenspan spoke with several American broadcast and newspaper reporters before the hearing began, he realized that they planned to defy the ban. Since they would actually be filing their stories in another country, the journalists didn’t think that their actions would be subject to Canadian law. If they did report testimony
damaging to Greenspan’s client, it could have prejudiced jurors if the case were committed to trial. While Canadian authorities could have arrested any reporters who violated the ban the next time they entered the country, Greenspan worried that the American news organizations would avoid charges by sending a new staff member for each day of the hearing. As a result, the judge agreed to Greenspan’s request to close the courtroom to reporters and the public (the charges against his client were dismissed).
When Homolka’s defence counsel George Walker appeared in court last week to arrange a trial date—the case will be heard in St. Catharines—one of Teale’s lawyers asked Ontario Court Justice Francis Kovacs for a ban on publication. But outside the courthouse Walker went a step further, suggesting that the media not be allowed into the courtroom at all. His primary concern was the circus atmosphere created by the dozens of journalists who have routinely covered the case, and he complained about the way they aggressively swarmed him.
It may become increasingly difficult for Canada’s stricter justice system to insulate itself from intense outside interest as news of the Teale case spreads to other countries. According to Jack Levin, a sociologist at Boston’s Northeastern University who has written two books on serial killers and predators, the Teale case is so extraordinary that it will eventually command global attention.
Already, two Canadian publishers, Key Porter Books and Little Brown, have commissioned books on the case, and at least four journalists are currently shopping other proposals among Toronto-based book editors. At the same time, several Canadian and American film producers are trying to purchase the story rights of the central players in the drama, including Homolka and police investigators. One entertainment source said that Homolka could command more than $50,000 for her story if a television docudrama about the case went into production.
But it may be several months before additional details about the case emerge. Legal experts predict that Judge Kovacs will, at the very least, slap a publication ban on the facts of Homolka’s case—a decision he will make at the outset of her trial—if not banish reporters from the courtroom altogether. While such a move is bound to raise cries from editors about the freedom of the press, well-known civil libertarians say that it is a reasonable measure. “It is not a question of banning publication forever,” says Edward Greenspan, a member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “It is a matter of postponing publication so the accused’s right to a fair trial is not infringed. There will be a transcript, you’re entitled to it, but maybe not right away.” For the American networks, movie moguls and book writers circling around the tragic story of Paul Teale and Karla Homolka, that may not be soon enough.
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