The commissioner conducting an inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of women in B.C. denies he’s already prejudged some of the issues he will be examining in the case involving serial killer Robert Pickton.
Wally Oppal released a statement on Monday saying he wants to clarify comments he made earlier this year to then-Attorney-General Barry Penner in a letter and telephone message.
Mr. Oppal said he felt compelled to set the record straight after the lawyer for the commission was approached by Deputy Attorney-General David Loukidelis July 15 with concerns about Mr. Oppal’s comments.
In both the letter and phone message, the former judge was urging the government to reverse a decision denying legal funding to several groups that had been granted participant status at the inquiry.
In the letter to Mr. Penner, dated June 27, Mr. Oppal said that if charges against Mr. Pickton had gone ahead in 1997, the murders of several women would have been avoided.
“I did not mean to suggest that I had concluded that the decision to stay the 1997 charges was wrong, nor did I mean to imply that if the charges had not been stayed, that Pickton would have been convicted,” Mr. Oppal said in Monday’s statement.
“My intention was to suggest that if there had been sufficient evidence to support a conviction at that time, Pickton’s criminal activities might have ended in 1998,” he said.
“Why there was not sufficient evidence, or, for that matter why Pickton was not caught earlier, is a question that I will be investigating. However, I want to stress that I have absolutely not reached any conclusion on this point.”
Mr. Oppal also released part of the transcribed voice-mail message he left for Mr. Penner on July 5.
“These are the women who complained to the police about women being missing. . . . The police gave them the back of their hands to these women and disregarded what they had to say. So they can’t cross-examine the police, who are, of course, well armed with publicly funded lawyers,” he said.
“So anyway, I just wanted you to know that, it’s how important this all is. And the government is now being seen as funding the people who allegedly [did]everything wrong and ignored the women, ignored the victims but . . . will not go and fund the victims, and not fund the women, the poor aboriginal women.”
Mr. Oppal said in his statement that it’s not uncommon for a commissioner to have contact with the attorney-general on administrative matters after the commission has been established.
On July 22, Mr. Loukidelis sent a letter to Mr. Oppal, explaining the government’s reasons for deciding not to fund all the groups Mr. Oppal had recommended get public money for legal help.
Mr. Loukidelis said the government simply couldn’t afford it and noted several other expensive priorities the government was struggling with, including paying for court sheriffs, Crown prosecutors and a full complement of provincial court judges.
Mr. Oppal said the inquiry, scheduled to start on Oct. 11, will examine issues including the alleged inadequacy of the police investigation and allegations about complainants being turned away, sometimes brusquely, when they tried to alert authorities about missing women.
Mr. Oppal noted such accounts are included in a Vancouver Police Department report released a year ago in which Deputy Chief Const. Doug LePard said families who tried to file missing-persons reports related to Mr. Pickton were rebuffed when they approached police.
Mr. Oppal said he’s bringing his concerns to light to give any participant a fair opportunity to make submissions to the commission and to ensure it proceeds in a way that is completely transparent.
Mr. Pickton, who targeted drug-addicted sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder in 2007.
Prosecutors said they will not proceed with charges in the slayings of 20 more women, because convictions wouldn’t mean more prison time for Mr. Pickton, who is serving a life sentence.