Media Ban Sought In Vancouver Serial Killer Trial

By: Adele Weder

(The Hollywood Reporter) A lawyer for an accused serial killer on Monday told a Vancouver court that international media attention, especially from U.S. tabloid shows, threatens his client’s upcoming murder trial.

Peter Ritchie, the lawyer for the accused, Robert Pickton, called for a media ban, with international and domestic reporters and the public barred from a preliminary hearing next month to ensure a fair trial for his client.

Ritchie, who is defending Pickton, a suburban Vancouver pig farmer accused of murdering at least 16 women, said that in the age of the Internet, “a mere ban of publication does not have a chance to be effective.”

Geoffrey Gaul, crown counsel for the prosecution, was in court to oppose Ritchie’s defense application for a closed-door hearing.

Legal and media representatives for The Washington Post, Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and Seattle television stations KOMO-TV and KING-TV also attended the hearing, but most said they didn’t know whether their news bureaus would obey a potential publication ban.

Vancouver lawyer David Sutherland, acting on behalf of various U.S. media, declined comment on whether his clients would obey a publication ban. “I’d be scooping my own clients,” he said.

Pickton’s case already has drawn international media attention. Feared to be one of North America’s most prolific mass murderers, he faces 16 counts of first-degree murder in a case connected with the disappearance of about 60 women, many of them prostitutes and drug addicts, from the streets of Vancouver over the past decade.

Under Canadian law, the media can attend preliminary hearings of trials that are subject to a publication ban, barring the release of details of prosecution evidence that might taint a potential jury pool.

If Judge David Stone refuses the defense application for a closed-door hearing, Ritchie could demand a ban on media publication, which would be automatically granted but likely prove difficult to enforce among non-Canadian media outlets.

Deborah Jones, the Vancouver-based correspondent for Agence France-Presse, said AFP’s policy is to obey the edicts of the host country regarding publication bans.

Canadian and international media outlets seeking an open hearing with no bans were set back when Stone ruled not to grant them “intervenor” status, thereby denying them the opportunity to argue their case in court against a private hearing or publication ban.

For his part, Ritchie cited the case of the Karla Homolka-Paul Bernardo trials in the mid-1990s in Ontario, during which media were allowed to attend but not report on Homolka’s initial trial and her role in the grisly rape, torture, and murder of two schoolgirls.

Despite that ruling, much of the banned information leaked out to the general public by the time Bernardo faced trial for his role in the killings.

“This is the year 2002,” Ritchie said. “We’re not back in the days of Barnardo. We have no power whatsoever over what’s broadcast through the Internet.”

Ritchie argued that members of the victims’ families would also have to be excluded from the preliminary hearing in order to prevent the possibility that “one of those family members decides to speak to the media.”

Ritchie is arguing that if media reports reach the general public, it would be difficult to find 12 unbiased jurors for Pickton’s trial.

The preliminary evidence behind the murder trial is expected to be filled with grisly details. DNA and body parts of the victims were found on Pickton’s suburban pig farm.

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