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Supreme Court restores Ellard conviction in Virk case Add to ...

From the day Reena Virk's sodden and battered body was pulled from a suburban Victoria waterway in November, 1997, the case upended conventional notions about the degree of violence that teenage girls are capable of committing. Reena's attackers were all teens, barely out of puberty and mostly female.

The trials of Kelly Ellard and her co-accused, Warren Glowatski, introduced Canadians to a cast of restless youths who were both participants and witnesses to the crime. They were a bored, unsupervised lot and they unleashed brutal violence. The teens lured an unsuspecting Reena to a secluded spot beneath a Victoria bridge and beat her senseless. She managed to get away, but Ms. Ellard and Mr. Glowatski followed her and killed her.

Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada ended Ms. Ellard's long legal odyssey, restoring her life sentence. But, now 26, she could be freed on parole in the near future, while Reena, forever 14, will remain the awkward girl in the often-seen photograph.

In an 8-1 ruling, the court overturned a B.C. Court of Appeal decision that invalidated Ms. Ellard's conviction after her third trial in the notorious case.

"It wasn't your typical crime and I think this is what confounded the justice system," said Rebecca Godfrey, author of Under the Bridge, a best-selling book about the case. "They had never dealt with witnesses like this. It was like the world of teenage girls came up against this justice system and they were completely at odds and didn't understand each other.

"And I do think that a factor in this was this disbelief that a teenage girl could be a murderer."

Ms. Ellard "didn't fit the profile of the male, 40-year-old psychopath," Ms. Godfrey added. "She was a prim, pretty girl. She had seemingly nice parents, and a good home. She wasn't outwardly at all what people would have expected."

For Reena's parents, the Supreme Court ruling marks the end of a painfully long legal journey that spanned more than a decade, included three murder trials and forced the large, tightly knit extended family to relive over and over - in court and through countless media interviews - the sickening details of Reena's final moments.

Friday, Suman Virk said the family was relieved to hear Ms. Ellard won't get a fourth trial. Ms. Virk said she and her husband, Manjit, couldn't bear it.

"Finally, I think the right thing has been done by the court system to bring Reena's murderer to justice," Ms. Virk said.

Although the Virks have been living in limbo since the B.C. Court of Appeal set aside Ms. Ellard's murder conviction, Ms. Virk said the family has begun to move on from Reena's death.

Mr. Virk Manjit wrote a moving book about his daughter's early years, which helped him recover from the grief that nearly crippled him. Reena's younger brother and sister are young adults, Ms. Virk said, "doing excellent."

Yet Ms. Virk said she would love to hear some contrition from Ms. Ellard. "I wish Kelly would accept responsibility for murdering Reena," she said.

Since Ms. Ellard - who was 15 at the time of the killing - has already served more than the seven-year parole eligibility period of her life sentence, she is eligible for early release.

"Parole officials will take into account her institutional record and whether or not she has taken programs," said Paul Calarco, a Toronto criminal lawyer. "The parole board is by no means required to grant parole. She may be there for another 10 to 15 years - nobody can tell."

The Supreme Court appeal was a last-ditch attempt by the Crown to bring Ms. Ellard to justice. She had avoided being convicted in 2003 based on a hung jury, and her conviction on a retrial in 2004 was ruled invalid due to judicial error.

The key Crown argument revolved around whether the trial judge ought to have instructed the jury not to infer that an important Crown eyewitness was accurate simply because she had been consistent in her testimony at several different court proceedings.

The witness claimed to have seen Ms. Ellard and Mr. Glowatski follow Ms. Virk across a bridge shortly before Ms. Virk was drowned. The defence maintained that the judge should have pointed out that consistent statements do not necessarily connote truthfulness.

"There was no reasonable possibility that the error had any impact on the verdict," Madam Justice Rosalie Abella said, writing for majority.

In a poignant turn of events, Mr. Glowatski eventually admitted his role in Reena's death and apologized personally to the Virk family. He has since been released from prison and works in the Vancouver area.

Ms. Godrey said it was interesting to observe the different paths chosen by Mr. Glowatski and Ms. Ellard.

"Warren emerged with more humanity," she said. "He was able to try to turn his life around and find help and reach out and recognize people that could help him and be open to the idea of improving his life, and making amends."

Ms. Ellard, by contrast, has never received the kind of help Mr. Glowatski sought. She was initially sentenced to juvenile correctional facilities but is now in an adult prison in British Columbia's Fraser Valley. Ms. Godfrey said she is an isolated and angry individual.

Meanwhile, the Virks are frequent speakers in elementary and high schools, sharing Reena's story with youngsters in the hopes of preventing another tragedy.

"Our main message is: 'When someone is being bullied, or you're being bullied, speak out about it because if one person had made a phone call that night … things could have been very different. Kids learn that from our story," Ms. Virk said.

The Virks also work with a provincial program that puts victims of violence in touch with perpetrators, the same program that brought the Virks to forgive Mr. Glowatski at a healing circle in 2007 in support of his day parole.

In the Supreme Court, the Crown argued that there was overwhelming proof of Ms. Ellard's guilt, based partly on 11 confessions and a clutch of teenage eyewitnesses who saw her moments before or after she pursued Ms. Virk across a bridge on the night of her death. Mr. Glowatski was a chief Crown witness against Ms. Ellard.

An autopsy showed that Ms. Virk was covered in bruises and had a cigarette burn to her forehead. The six other girls who were at the scene that night were ultimately convicted of assault causing bodily harm. They have completed youth sentences, which ranged from two months to a year.

 

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