Serial killer Robert Pickton didn't get a perfect trial, but he certainly got a fair one.
In a 9-0 judgment nailing down the Port Coquitlam, B.C., pig farmer's convictions for the gruesome murders of six sex-trade workers, the court rejected Mr. Pickton's claims to have been mistreated by the justice system.
"Certainly, this was a long and difficult trial - but it was also a fair one," Mr. Justice Louis LeBel said. "Despite the errors ... there was no miscarriage of justice occasioned by the trial proceedings. Mr. Pickton was entitled to the same measure of justice as any other person in this country. He received it. He is not entitled to more."
The court said that prosecution evidence in the case was so overwhelming that granting Mr. Pickton a new trial based on an inconsequential error would constitute a grave mistake.
Convicted in 2007 on six charges of second-degree murder in the deaths of six Vancouver prostitutes, Mr. Pickton was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 25 years. The B.C. Crown decided on Friday to stay another 20 counts, which it had indicated previously that it would do if the Supreme Court let the six convictions stand.
The Pickton trial rapidly turned into a battle of attrition that consumed five years and featured 129 witnesses and 1.3 million pages of documents.
Throughout the proceeding, the Crown portrayed Mr. Pickton as the sole killer. However, the Supreme Court observed that the prosecution need never have married itself to such a restrictive theory. It said that simply proving that Mr. Pickton actively participated in luring the women to his farm and butchering their bodies in his slaughterhouse would have been enough to secure his conviction.
The Crown's questionable judgment on that point came close to derailing the case. The key issue for the Supreme Court involved an incident on the sixth day of deliberations, when the jurors returned to ask Mr. Justice James Williams of the B.C. Supreme Court whether they could still convict Mr. Pickton if they decided he had not acted alone.
Judge Williams instantly realized that by telling the jurors that the Crown had to prove that Mr. Pickton had actually killed the victims, he had confused them. In an attempt to undo the damage, he explained that they could also convict Mr. Pickton simply on the basis that he was "an active participant" in the killings.
Soon afterward, the jury convicted Mr. Pickton on all six counts.
Before the Supreme Court of Canada, defence counsel Gil McKinnon accused Judge Williams of mistakenly permitting the Crown to take advantage of the jury's quandary by recasting its theory of the crime.
He argued that Mr. Pickton's trial lawyers were taken by surprise, since the entire defence was predicated on responding to the Crown's theory that Mr. Pickton acted alone.
Mr. McKinnon also noted that the Crown flatly rejected defence suggestions during the trial that there were alternate suspects. "The Crown ridiculed the defence position that other persons were responsible for the murders as 'straw men,' 'red herrings' and 'bogeymen,'" he said.
Writing on Friday for a six-judge faction of the court, Madam Justice Louise Charron said it was "completely erroneous in law" for the trial judge to have stated that it was necessary to find that Mr. Pickton was the actual killer.
However, she noted that he had retracted the instruction and made it clear to the jurors that Mr. Pickton could be equally guilty if they found that he actively aided and abetted the killings.
"This case was never about whether the accused had a minor role in the killing of the victims," Judge Charron added. "It was about whether or not he had actually killed them. The instructions as a whole adequately conveyed to the jury what it needed to know to consider the alternate routes to liability properly."
In concurring reasons, written on behalf of Mr. Justice Ian Binnie and Mr. Justice Morris Fish, Judge LeBel said that the confusing jury instructions had actually augered strongly to Mr. Pickton's benefit.
"There was overwhelming evidence of the accused's participation in the murders and, from whichever perspective his participation is considered, he was necessarily either a principal or an aider or abettor," Judge LeBel said. "Indeed, a properly instructed jury would likely have convicted the accused of first degree rather than second degree murder."
The evidence against him was "compelling and overwhelming," Judge LeBel said. "It would surpass belief that a properly instructed jury would not have found him guilty of murder in the presence of such cogent evidence of his involvement."
Read the full Supreme Court judgment