NO ONE MAY EVER KNOW WHY KARLA HOMOLKA, A PRETTY 23-YEAR-OLD FROM A NICE HOME, WOULD HELP TO KILL TWO TEENAGE GIRLS
NO ONE MAY EVER KNOW WHY KARLA HOMOLKA, A PRETTY 23-YEAR-OLD FROM A NICE HOME, WOULD HELP TO KILL TWO TEENAGE GIRLS
On one side of the packed courtroom sat the grief-stricken parents of the two young murder victims. Near the opposite wall sat the family of the accused. Between them, an attractive 23-year-old woman named Karla Homolka gazed impassively last week as Crown attorney Murray Segal stepped up to a lectern in the St. Catharines, Ont., courtroom. For the next 27 minutes, Segal read a statement outlining in stark and shocking detail the role that Homolka played in the deaths of teenagers Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. While others in the room gasped and wept, the elegantly dressed Homolka dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief—a rare display of public emotion by a woman at the centre of one of Canada’s most horrific criminal cases. But Segal’s tersely worded statement could not begin to explain how a young
woman from a stable middle-class family could commit such unspeakable acts.
Homolka herself provided no hints, clues or anything even faintly resembling an answer. She spent five days in the prisoner’s box, but four were consumed by legal arguments over whether the evidence presented against her could be published. All the while, the accused sat with her back to the packed public galleries. Shielded by a Plexiglas barrier, she remained as motionless as a mannequin, as
sdent as a sphinx. She spoke only twice,
Swhen Ontario Court General Division Judge Francis Kovacs asked for her pleas on each of two manslaughter charges. Later, Kovacs pronounced her guilty and sentenced her to two concurrent 12-year terms. A few hours afterwards, wearing a navy blue suit, a white blouse and a multicolored floral barrette in her rich blond hair, Homolka—in handcuffs—entered a police van for the trip to the Prison For Women in Kingston, Ont.
The tension in the courtroom, and the intense public interest surrounding Karla Homolka’s trial, reflected the heinous nature of the crimes. Leslie Mahaffy, at the time of her death a 14-year-old Grade 9 student in Burlington, Ont., was last seen by friends in the early morning of June 15, 1991. Two weeks later—on the day that Homolka married Paul Bernardo, a 26-year-old trainee accountant—parts of Mahaffy’s body were found encased in concrete in Lake Gibson, a reservoir just south of St. Catharines. Ten months later, on April 16,1992, Kristen French, a 15-year-old St. Catharines high-school student, was abducted while walking home from school. Her nude body was found two weeks later on a country road near Burlington. Police maintained that both girls were sexually assaulted, and that French had been kept alive for 13 days after her abduction.
Police made no arrests for months. Then, in January of this year, Niagara Regional Police charged Bernardo, who was in the midst of changing his surname to Teale, with assault after Homolka complained that he had beat her with a flashlight. A few weeks later, Metro Toronto police laid 43 sexual assault charges against Teale, most in connection with a series of unsolved attacks dating back to 1987 in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. Finally, on May 18, after prolonged negotiations between her lawyer and senior officials of the Ontario ministry of the attorney general, and an intensive search of the house Teale and Homolka had rented in the St. Catharines neighborhood of Port Dalhousie, Niagara Regional Police filed two counts of manslaughter against Homolka. A day later, Teale was charged with two counts of first-degree murder.
Legal experts predict that, because of the complexity of the case, and the number of charges against him, Teale’s murder trial will not begin until late 1994 or early 1995. Homolka’s case proceeded much faster because she agreed to co-operate with the police investigation. She also waived her right to a preliminary hearing after extensive negotiations between her lawyer and the Crown over her charges and her recommended sentence. One of Teale’s lawyers, Ken Murray, said later that the Crown may have “made a deal with the devil” in return for Homolka’s testimony against her husband.
Despite the intense public interest in Homolka’s trial, Kovacs closed the courtroom to the general public and prohibited the media from publishing or broadcasting any details about the circumstances of the deaths. He argued that Teale’s right to a fair trial on the murder charges must take precedence over freedom of expression. But his ruling provoked anger among St. Catharines residents who argued that they had a right to know what Homolka did, and to decide for themselves whether her punishment was adequate.
A day-by-day account of the court proceedings that led to Homolka’s conviction:
Monday, June 28
At sunrise, downtown St. Catharines is quiet and peaceful. The streets are normally deserted, the stores and offices closed. But this morning, at 5:30 a.m., reporters, photographers, TV camera operators and a few curious local residents are already gathered outside the city courthouse, a modern four-storey building of concrete, metal and glass. By 9 a.m., an hour before the trial is scheduled to begin, some 200 people are lined up four abreast from the courthouse entrance to the street. A man dressed as the cartoon character Spiderman marches back and forth on the sidewalk carrying a placard in support of the police.
Behind the courthouse, a smaller crowd awaits the arrival of Homolka, her parents and younger sister, who will be driven the five
kilometres from their home to the building, and back again, each day by police. Photographers and local residents are crowded shoulder to shoulder along a short driveway to the entrance of an underground parking lot. Someone spots a grey Dodge Caravan approaching rapidly and shouts: “Here they are!” Camera shutters begin clicking, and a bearded spectator with a ponytail yells: “Bitch!” Seconds later, the van disappears into the building and a steel door closes.
Courtroom 10, the largest chamber in the building, has grey concrete walls, a white stucco ceiling and oak trim. The public galleries, which can seat about 150, are jammed when Kovacs, the 63-year-old son of Hungarian immigrants, appears shortly after 10 a.m. The parents of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, along with several other relatives, are seated on the left side of the courtroom. Karel and Dorothy Homolka, with their 21-yearold daughter Lori, are in the front row on the right. Karla Homolka sits in the prisoner’s box, directly in front of the judge. She remains utterly still throughout a long day of legal arguments.
It proves to be a demanding day. Crown attorney Segal spends almost three hours arguing for a ban on the publication of evidence. Standing at the lectern in black robes, he addresses Kovacs in a barely audible monotone. Segal contends that Teale’s right to a fair trial might be jeopardized if the media reported the evidence used to convict his estranged wife. “Freedom of expression does not exist in a vacuum,” he says. “If there is a conflict between freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial, then the right to a fair trial is held to be paramount.”
Timothy Breen, representing Teale, has a strong voice, a dramatic style and a surprising line of argument. His client, who originally applied for the publication ban, now wants the evidence against Homolka made public. He says that the police have deliberately leaked information portraying his client as the perpetrator of the crimes and Homolka as a victim.
The evidence against Homolka, Breen suggests, will reveal that she took an active part in the deaths.
Tuesday, June 29
At 7 a.m., photographers begin gathering outside the Homolka family’s split-level, semidetached home in a quiet, well-maintained neighborhood. It is here that TV crews will capture images of the young accused for the evening newscasts.
Later that morning, Homolka’s lawyer, George Walker, stands before Kovacs to say that he supports Segal’s application for a publication ban. Forget about case law and legalese, he tells the court, and think about the psychological damage that publication of the evidence would inflict on the community. In a voice so low that ears strain to catch his words, Walker—a lawyer in the Niagara region for more than 25 years— says: “I care about this community. I care about the trauma that will be inflicted on the Mahaffy family, on the French family and on my client’s family.”
Next up are a battery of Toronto lawyers representing some of the country’s largest media organizations, arguing that the public is entitled to hear the evidence.
Wednesday, June 30
The promise of another day devoted entirely to legal arguments does nothing to dampen the media’s enthusiasm. But public interest has clearly waned. The lineup has shrunk to the point where almost everyone will get a seat. Many of those in line have followed the proceedings from the outset, and some have travelled from other communities. Nicole Cammack, 19, a Sir Sandford Fleming Community College student in Peterborough, Ont., has taken a hotel room in St. Catharines to attend the proceedings. “I just can’t believe that she could have done this,” says Cammack. “I don’t know how she could get so wrapped up in him that she could abandon all her morals.” Daniel Castellan, a 19-year-old St. Catharines high-school stu-
dent, has come for personal reasons. “I went to the same school as Kristen,” Castellan says. “I saw her two minutes before she was abducted. I never noticed anything.”
By early afternoon, Kovacs has heard all the legal arguments. He announces that he will consider the matter over the July 1 holiday weekend. A few minutes later, Homolka and her family are on their way home in the police van. But it is clear that she was prepared to be sent to prison. In the back of the van are a small tan-colored suitcase, an 18-inch color TV and three small cardboard boxes.
Monday, July 5
Around 8:30 a.m., eight teenage girls arrive outside the courthouse and begin marching back and forth with placards held high. They are all members of a precision skating team to which Kristen French belonged. Their purpose is clear. “Support the ban, think of the families,” one of their placards reads. “No body needs to know the details,” says another.
Kovacs spends almost three hours reading his decision, responding to each of the lawyers’ arguments and citing previous cases and precedents to support his position. Teale’s right to a fair trial supersedes the media’s right to freedom of expression, he concludes. Moreover, the gravity of the charges against Teale reinforces society’s interest in ensuring that justice is done. “I agonized—agonized," Kovacs states, “over whether the public should be excluded.” He also bars U.S. reporters from the court because, he says, he cannot enforce a publication ban in the United States.
Tuesday, July 6
The general public is excluded. After the clerk of the court reads the charges against Homolka, she enters her pleas—which cannot be reported under the publication ban. Only then does Segal rise to read the statement of facts agreed to by the Crown and Homolka’s lawyer. It takes 27 minutes to read and the details, none of which can be reported under the judge’s order, are graphic and shockingly sordid. Homolka’s sister, Ix>ri, slumps in her chair, weeping quietly. Many others in the room appear stunned and shaken. Kovacs, obviously sensitive to the trauma that the French and Mahaffy families have just endured, orders a recess until the families are ready to continue.
The hearing resumes 45 minutes later, and Kovacs registers convic-
tions against Homolka on both counts. The next stage of the trial is almost as harrowing for those in the courtroom as the evidence was. Debbie Mahaffy, appearing frail and tormented, reads a statement describing the impact of her daughter’s death on her family. Mahaffy sheds many tears during her half-hour statement, and many shed tears with her. Donna French is next, and the ordeal is repeated. Kovacs orders their statements sealed forever.
After another break, Kovacs receives a joint submission from the Crown and the defence on Homolka’s sentence. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., he turns to the prisoner and begins to lecture her on the gravity of her crimes and the horrendous damage she has inflicted. During a 75-minute address, he explains that Homolka was charged with manslaughter because she bears responsibility for the deaths of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, even though she did not personally kill them. The maximum sentence for manslaughter—life imprisonment—is reserved for the worst offences and the worst offenders, he says.
Homolka has committed the worst offence, Kovacs explains, but she is not the worst conceivable offender. She has co-operated fully with police and provided information that is not normally available in abduction cases. She has also spared everyone the expense and trauma of a long trial.
Kovacs sentences her to concurrent 12year terms on each charge. That means Homolka could be free on parole in as few as four years. The penalty is harsh enough, he says, to deter others who might be tempted to commit such deeds, and to protect the safety of the community. And Kovacs expresses the hope, on the basis of reports he has received, that Homolka can be rehabilitated. But in one crucial respect, he admitted, the sentence is inadequate.
Said Kovacs: “No sentence I can impose would adequately reflect the revulsion of the community for the deaths of two innocent young girls who lived their lives without reproach in the eyes of their communities.”
Despite the publication ban, now under appeal by several media organizations, residents of the community are captivated by the trial. Many have hovered by radios and televisions all afternoon for word of the outcome. Barbara Peters, a department store sales clerk, said that she and several coworkers gathered around the TV sets in the store’s electronics department to catch news bulletins about the trial. Richard Rice, a 28-year-old banker, followed the progress of the trial on radio reports. “It’s hard to tell whether she got a fair sentence,” Rice says, “because we don’t really know how much she was involved.”
On Bayview Drive, the street where Karla Homolka and Paul Teale lived for two tumultuous years, a chill has displaced the neighborhood’s natural warmth. Homeowners on the street no longer care to discuss the fate of their former neighbors. The pink clapboard house where the couple lived is vacant. The blinds are drawn and the grass in the backyard stands two feet tall. Silent and empty, the house is a permanent reminder of the dreadful crimes that still traumatize a once peaceful and trusting community.
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