There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to the trial that began last week in Vancouver. Along one side of a high-ceilinged B.C. Supreme Court chamber, six men and six women sit in the red upholstered chairs of the jury box, eyes flicking now and again over a tall, strawberry blond woman seated beside her lawyer at a table six metres away. Three years ago, she sat in a nearly identical box one floor below, as a member of a jury hearing a lurid murder trial. Now, 43-year-old Gillian Guess is herself a defendant in a trial without precedent in Canada, accused of improperly influencing her fellow jurors to render an acquittal in that 1995 case. As Crown prosecutor Joe Bellows put his case, Guess, “while serving as a juror, had a personal relationship with one of the accused, Preet Sarbjit Gill, that included an intimate, romantic and sexual relationship.” The affair, Bellows said, led Guess to “attempt to obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice.”
Never before has a Canadian juror faced a criminal charge for, effectively, falling in love with a defendant. There can also be few precedents for an accused person establishing her own Web site—replete with glamorous photo—to assert her innocence. But beyond its prurient appeal, the case has academic interest: since amendments to the Criminal Code in 1972, Canadian jurors have been prohibited in almost all instances from discussing the substance of their deliberations. Testimony to be heard in the case against Guess, a single mother of two and part-time movie extra, will offer an exceedingly rare glimpse into what goes on behind that veil of jury secrecy. As many as six of Guess’s fellow jurors from the 1995 trial are expected to testify.
The bizarre facts of the two trials begin with a pair of gangland murders in early 1994. In February that year, 26-year-old suspected drug dealer Jimsher Dosanjh was lured into an alley in southeast Vancouver where two groups of men trapped him in a crossfire and left his bullet-riddled body lying in a pool of blood. Two months later, Dosanjh’s elder brother, Ranjit, 29, was driving his red pickup truck when someone in a silver Ford Taurus that pulled alongside let loose a spray of bullets, killing Dosanjh instantly. In the weeks that followed, police and prosecutors
charged a total of six men, including Gill, in connection with the two murders, alleging that the killings were part of a turf war between rival gangs of drug dealers.
When the charges against Gill and the others, including admitted cocaine dealer Bindy Johal, went to trial the following year, Guess was a member of the jury. The prosecution’s case, however, quickly began to fall apart. Defence lawyers successfully challenged the testimony of two key eyewitnesses to the younger Dosanjh’s killing, demonstrating during a visit to the crime scene that at least one of them could not possibly have seen the events to which he had testified. In late October, 1995, Guess and her fellow jurors returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty on both murder counts for all six of the accused.
A week later, Guess and Gill were dancing together at a nightclub on Vancouver’s Granville Island. But that was not the first indication that the two had developed a relationship. Last week, former court registrar Emma Hyde testified that she and other staff at the 1995 trial had been so alarmed by what she called “flirtatious” behavior between
Guess and Gill in court that she had brought it to the attention of the judge. He in turn warned Gill’s lawyer to keep his client—free on bail at the time—away from members of the jury. Within two weeks of the trial’s conclusion, a police surveillance team observed Gill spending the night with Guess at her North Vancouver townhouse. According to Bellows, police then obtained permission to tap Guess’s telephone and place listening probes in her home. Tape recordings of what they overheard, Bellows said, will be entered in evidence against Guess. “You will hear Miss Guess herself admit,” he told jurors, “she had a personal, romantic and sexual relationship with Mr. Gill during the trial.” Guess denies that. While she admitted during pre-trial proceedings that she fell in love with Gill, nine years her junior, during the 1995 trial, she also insists the relationship did not become physical until after that trial ended. The relationship ended, she says, when she was ordered not to see Gill after her arrest in May, 1996. In a television interview shortly after the acquittals, in which Guess’s identity was concealed, she also defended the not-guilty verdicts, asserting that the Crown had failed to prove its case against the six accused murderers. That claim may now form part of her defence strategy. In cross-examining witnesses during the opening week of Guess’s trial, defence counsel Peter Ritchie appeared to be calling attention to perceived weaknesses of the Crown’s case against Gill and the others—potentially laying the ground for the argument that if justice was served in 1995, Guess could not have obstructed it by arguing in favor of acquittal.
Legal observers might question that line of reasoning. Regardless of whether the acquittals were just, notes Simon Fraser University psychologist James Ogloff, “the appearance of justice is as important as the decision that is ultimately carried out.” Adds Ogloff, who has a law degree and studies the behavior of juries: “It’s not entirely inconceivable that a single person could turn the others around.” The trial is expected to take several weeks— including a three-day adjournment at the end of May to allow a juror to make a previously arranged trip to Disneyland with his wife. Last week, trial judge Raymond Paris ordered Guess to stop posting comments about the proceedings on her personal Web page, illustrated with images from the Disney version of Alice. Guess—who coincidentally once had a bit part as a juror in a TV movie filmed in the courtroom where Gill was tried—complied, but continued to post e-mail from some of the 2,600plus visits to the site. Meanwhile, a Crown appeal of the acquittals in the murder case is expected to be heard later this year. Prosecutors will not say if their strategy in any way depends on the verdict in the case against Guess.
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