A doctor at the centre of the tainted-blood tragedy that infected thousands of people, is too ill to stand trial in the examination of his alleged role into one of Canada's worst public health disasters, his lawyer is expected to argue today.
Roger Perrault, the former head of the Canadian Red Cross, has a weak heart that could face unbearable strain if he were made to answer allegations that he allowed HIV-infected blood products to be given to hemophilia patients, his lawyer Edward Greenspan said.
"Witnesses have been examined who have expressed the view that he could die in a protracted trial and that's the issue," Mr. Greenspan said.
Victims' groups sneered at Dr. Perrault's attempts to avoid the rigours of trial, saying hundreds of infected Canadians have died waiting for justice.
"A lot of the people . . . who've been following this court case also have seriously compromised health," said David Page of the Canadian Hemophilia Society. "Our thoughts are with the people whose lives have been hurt."
Dr. Perrault, 68, has had two heart attacks and open heart surgery after suffering from coronary-artery disease for 23 years.
He plans to bring an application today to stay charges laid in 2002 by the RCMP, a move that would effectively withdraw criminal charges without presenting evidence or determining the facts.
Dr. Perrault, three other doctors and New Jersey-based Armour Pharmaceutical Co. are charged with criminal negligence causing bodily harm for allegedly allowing an HIV-infected blood-clotting product to be given to hemophilia patients in the 1980s and early 1990s.
It's alleged that Dr. Perrault and other officials with the Red Cross and Health Canada failed to screen blood products and take adequate measures to prevent people infected with HIV-AIDS from donating blood.
More than 1,000 Canadians became infected with blood-borne HIV and up to 20,000 others contracted hepatitis C after receiving tainted blood products.
The executive director of the Hepatitis C Society of Canada said the decades-old case has dragged on long enough and that continued delays are demoralizing for victims.
"People are very angry," Tim McClemont said from the group's national office in Hamilton. "It's very hard for people to have any sympathy for him."
It's not clear how many people have lost their lives to tainted blood, but 3,000 people had died by 1997.
Mr. Greenspan said today's stay application will deal with charges expected to be heard in a Toronto court this fall, but will also make "genuine reference" to a case in Hamilton that deals with similar accusations of criminal negligence.
The trial in Toronto could last up to a year, while proceedings in Hamilton, where allegations centre on the Red Cross, are expected to take up to 10 months, Mr. Greenspan said.
"So we're putting him into court for the next, almost two years, on a daily basis," he said. "You still have to respect somebody's Charter right not to be put through a trial where they may die."
The Red Cross ended its involvement in blood distribution in 1998 after a damning public inquiry and transferred those services to the Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Quebec.
In May, the Red Cross apologized and pleaded guilty to distributing tainted blood after blood-screening measures for HIV and hepatitis C were implemented too slowly.
One citizens' rights group placed the blame squarely on government and Red Cross authorities.
"This matter should have been properly dealt with more than a decade ago," said Michele Brill-Edwards of the Alliance for Public Accountability.
"By initially denying that there was any wrongdoing in the contamination of blood with HIV and hepatitis C," Dr. Brill-Edwards said, "the various government [authorities]and the Red Cross and the manufacturers of blood products have in essence created a delay so severe that now the people responsible can elude answering to the public for their actions."