The search for 12 impartial jurors begins,D’ARCY JENISHMay81995
The search for 12 impartial jurors begins
For the next four to six months, Justice Patrick LeSage will have one of the most difficult jobs in the country. The soft-spoken, quick-witted judge is presiding over the trial of Paul Bernardo, the 30-year-old former accountant charged with first-degree murder in the sex slayings of two southern Ontario schoolgirls. The case has received extraordinary publicity since Bernardo’s arrest in February, 1993, in St. Catharines, Ont., where the killings occurred. His trial, which enters the crucial stage of jury selection in Toronto this week, is expected to draw huge crowds, produce sensational testimony and attract intense media coverage. But first, defence and prosecution lawyers must screen a panel of 1,500 candidates to find 12 impartial jurors, a process that could take two weeks. ‘There’s never been a case in Canada with as much publicity as this one,” said Bruce Dumo, president of the Ontario Criminal Lawyers Association. “No doubt that will mean added headaches for LeSage and everyone involved.”
Barring unexpected developments, Crown attorney Ray Houlahan should be making his opening address to the jury before the end of May in the case that involves the murders of 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy and 15-year-old Kristen French. His outline of the evidence against Bernardo will include some highly contentious home-made videotapes. The Crown intends to call nearly 90 witnesses, though none will be as crucial to its case as
Karla Homolka, Bernardo’s exwife, who turns 25 this week and is serving concurrent 12-year sentences for her part in the killings.
She was convicted in July, 1993, but the presiding judge, Justice Francis Kovacs, imposed a publication ban on the evidence to protect Bernardo’s right to a fair trial—a move that sparked an unprecedented amount of rumor and speculation about the case.
The high level of public interest, along with the extensive pretrial media coverage, has put immense pressure on LeSage because he is primarily responsible for ensuring that Bernardo receives a fair trial. He decided last fall to move the trial to Toronto because of the passions the crimes had aroused in St. Catharines. And in late January, he announced that the Ontario attorney general’s department would be asked to assemble a panel of 1,500 prospective jurors, one of the largest pools ever put together in Canada.
The selection process was scheduled to begin on May 1 when the candidates were to attend briefing sessions in two groups of 750 at a Toronto hotel. Court officials were to give each person an information document and a brief questionnaire prepared by LeSage in conjunction with Houlahan and chief defence lawyer John Rosen. The questionnaires were expected to eliminate anywhere from a third to half of those who were called. The remaining candidates were to be
given dates and times to appear in court, and most observers anticipated that the selection process would proceed at a rate of about 50 candidates per day.
While LeSage is responsible for controlling the courtroom, officials of the Ontario attorney general’s department have taken unusual steps to ensure that an orderly atmosphere prevails in and around the six-storey courthouse. Members of the public are required to line up at a specified entrance for a chance to fill one of the 100 or so seats in the courtroom. Court officials will issue a ticket and stamp one hand of everyone who is admitted, to prevent them from selling their tickets. A senior department official also circulated a memo to courthouse staff, advising them to watch for unattended packages or any unusual behavior by members of the public. “If you receive strange telephone calls or notice anything suspicious, bring it to the attention of your supervisor,” the memo said.
The department, along with Metro Toronto police, have closed off two side streets outside the courthouse largely to accommodate an influx of television crews. The CBC, CTV and several local stations planned to carry live daily reports from outside the courthouse. They have set up editing studios in trailers provided by the attorney general’s department. And they intend to broadcast live from platforms erected on scaffolds over the sidewalk directly opposite the courthouse. Along with regular news stories and bulletins, TV news executives also plan extensive commentary on the trial. For example, Toronto-based CTV has retained two lawyers, one a specialist in criminal law and the other an expert in forensic science, to provide expert analysis of daily developments.
But while the cameras remain on the sidewalk outside the courthouse, the real drama will occur in LeSage’s courtroom once the jury is selected and witnesses begin testifying. And for all the pretrial media preparation, and public anticipation, the purpose of the drama is simple and straightforward: to determine how two young girls met their deaths, and to prove the guilt or innocence of Paul Bernardo, the handsome, preppylooking university graduate accused of murdering them.
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