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Robert Pickton has been found guilty on six counts of second-degree murder related to the scores of missing women from Vancouver's impoverished Downtown Eastside.

On a rare wintry day here, a jury of seven men and five women returned the guilty verdict on all of the half dozen charges Mr. Pickton was facing, following marathon deliberations that began more than nine days ago.

But the surprise verdict found Mr. Pickton not guilty of first-degree murder on the six charges.

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The verdict came shortly before noon local time.

As the related charge dealing with each of the victims was read out to a tense, silent courtroom, the jury foreman pronounced "guilty" six times in succession to charges of second-degree murder, but "not guilty" on charges of first-degree murder.

The verdicts mean Mr. Pickton will still face a life sentence, but he could be eligible for parole in 10 years rather than the automatic 25 years a first-degree conviction calls for.

He also faces a second trial on charges of murdering 20 other Downtown Eastside women. Conviction on those charges would make him Canada's most notorious serial killer.

Jurors had no recommendation on parole eligibility and court was adjourned until Tuesday when sentencing will be decided and victim impact statements will be read.

Georgina Papin's three sisters, Marnie Frey's father and stepmother and Mona Wilson's sister were in the courtroom to hear the verdict.

Mr. Pickton stood with his defence lawyers Peter Ritchie and Adrian Brooks at his sides. The court clerk read out each charge and asked for the jury's decision. Mr. Pickton looked ahead at the floor, never glancing at the jury.

The foreman's first response was to say not guilty to the charge of first degree murder of Sereena Abotsway. Ms. Papin's sisters shrieked loudly, then held their breath and listened. Others gasped and began to cry.

The clerk continued to ask for the jury's decision on each count.

As the jurors filed out of the courtroom to consider whether they had a recommendation on when Mr. Pickton should be eligible for parole, two jury members appeared to have wet eyes. One jury member glanced quickly at Mr. Pickton. Others headed out the side door In the vestibule, outside the courtroom, members of the Missing Women Task Force appeared stunned.

Lead prosecutor Mike Petrie told three court watchers that he felt happy and relieved. Another prosecutor said he was pleased the jury had returned a verdict of murder and the only question is when he will be eligible to ask for parole.

But relatives and friends of the victims and other missing women had very mixed emotions.

Nearly two dozen of them had been camping out for days at the courthouse here, as they waited nervously for a decision on Mr. Pickton's fate.

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The first family members to emerge from the courthouse after the verdict appeared distraught that Mr. Pickton was not convicted of first-degree murder.

"It's not right," said one member as she hugged a supporter.

Some wept.

"It was pretty devastating when I heard them say not guilty of first-degree murder," said Marilyn Kraft, mother of one of the alleged victims in the second murder trial Mr. Pickton will face. She said she's just hoping the jury will recommend no parole for 25 years.

Several family members seemed completely overcome by the emotions of hearing the words not guilty applied to Mr. Pickton, despite his conviction of second-degree murder.

Peter Ritchie, Mr. Pickton's lead defence lawyer, said his client was taking the verdict predictably.

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"You'd be guessing accurately if you said he was having a normal reaction for someone found guilty of second-degree murder."

But Mr. Ritchie was cautious in offering much opinion about the verdict or the case, noting his client still faces a further 20 murder charges involving other women from Vancouver's gritty Downtown Eastside.

And he was leery about drawing any conclusions about what went on in the jury room.

"I don't know what the jury thought except that the Crown didn't prove that these murders were planned and deliberate," he said.

Jury deliberations are secret in Canada and before dismissing them, Mr. Justice James Williams reminded jurors that they were never to discuss what went on among them.

Word there would be a verdict came just before 11 o'clock, and only moments after about 20 victim family members and friends had held a moving, native smudging ceremony to pray for "a good verdict."

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The dead women, Sereena Abotsway, 29; Mona Wilson, 26; Andrea Joesbury, 22; Brenda Wolfe, 30; Georgina Papin, 34, and Marnie Frey, 23, were drug addicts and sex-trade workers who had been lured to Mr. Pickton's pig farm about 30 kilmetres away by offers of drugs and money.

They had last been seen over a four-year time span, from August of 1997 to the same month in 2001.

The verdict meant that the jury did not believe Mr. Pickton deliberately, and on his own, planned to kill the women, but was involved in the killings, perhaps with someone else.

Elaine Allan, who knew several of the six victims, said that it was incredibly difficult to hear "six times over" the not guilty verdict on Mr. Pickton's first degree murder charges.

Ms. Allan, who was in the courtroom for the verdict, said family members were breaking down in angst. "It was hard for all of us to hear that."

However, she said, the accused's conviction on six counts of second degree murder was certainly a consolation. "I'm relieved a very dangerous man will no longer be out on the streets," she said.

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For those related directly to the six women, the verdict marked the end of an agonizing, emotional roller coaster ride that began in February 2002 when Mr. Pickton was arrested and charged with the first two of what eventually became 26 counts of murder.

Weeping, former sex trade worker Tricia Battie who observed much of the trial said that at least mr. Pickton will likely spend the rest of bis life in jail.

She said the verdict will bring some closure to the families and the victims themselves.

"They weren't just former junkies from the downtown eastside. They were women, and they've waited nearly five years for this."

The dramatic courtroom decision was also a bittersweet victory for the Crown in a case that proved difficult to prosecute, despite the discovery of butchered remains of the missing women on Mr. Pickton's suburban property in Port Coquitlam.

The difficulty was underscored by the near-record length of time the jury took to come to its unanimous verdict, despite a general public perception that Mr. Pickton's guilt was obvious, given the many body parts found scattered about his property.

But the Crown's case included dubious witnesses, a wealth of uncertain DNA evidence and the lack of a so-called "smoking gun" directly linking Mr. Pickton to the killings.

However, one witness testified that she came upon the 58-year-old pig farmer in the farm slaughterhouse while he was in the process of butchering one of the women. He was covered in blood, she said.

And Mr. Pickton appeared to admit to the murders several times - without making a clear confession - during a lengthy, police interrogation and jail cell conversations with an undercover agent he thought was a hardened criminal.

More than once, the accused said he was "so close" to killing an even 50 women, but got sloppy and was caught.

Once he complained to police: "You're making me out to be more of a mass murderer than I am."

The trial that concluded today was one of the longest, costliest and most complex in the annals of Canada's justice system. The sensational, gory details of the missing women saga attracted media attention around the world. Many in the courtroom, including jurors, were overcome at times during the lengthy proceedings.

The jury had to deal with a mass of complicated evidence and testimony from 128 witnesses, much of it contradictory. Members also had to contend with 20 hours of vital video tapes of Mr. Pickton's encounters with police.

The verdict came several days after Judge James William modified his instructions to the jury. The judge explained that he had made an error when he first outlined what it would take to convict Mr. Pickton of murder in the deaths of three of the victims, Ms. Abotsway, Ms. Joesbury and Ms. Wilson.

In his clarification, he broadened the requirement to include Mr. Pickton's involvement in the murders as "an active participant." Before the jury retired, the judge had said that jurors must find beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Pickton actually pulled the trigger of the gun or guns that killed them.

His decision to revise that portion of his jury charge was angrily attacked by defence lawyer Adrian Brooks during argument while the jurors were out of the courtroom.

Mr. Brooks told the judge that the trial should end "right now," if he changed his charge to six days into the jury's deliberations.

"What is the jury to think when they have been told what the law is, and all of a sudden it moves and it changes?…To do so is wholly inappropriate."

The veteran defence lawyer gave a strong hint that Judge Williams decision will be among the grounds for a future appeal, saying that the appearance of a fair trial for Mr. Pickton "evaporates in these circumstances.

"It (the judge's revision) is without precedence, and it must certainly not occur here."

In his closing argument, prosecutor Mike Petrie had urged jurors to look at "the constellation of evidence" against Mr. Pickton.

They should not lose sight of the forest among the individual trees of evidence, much of which was forcefully attacked by the accused's top-flight team of lawyers.

Overall, said Mr. Petrie, the facts of the case pointed to one man who murdered the women, cut them up, and disposed of their remains, and that man was Robert Pickton.

It defied belief, he said, that someone else "snuck onto that farm with a bunch of body parts, bones, personal belongings".

The crown painted a grim picture of the accused, calling him someone who killed repeatedly and invisibly for years. Then, when he was finally nabbed, he played coy with the cops, slyly trying to manipulate them into making a deal.

Defence lawyers, however, offered the jury a completely different view of the soft-spoken pig farmer.

They said Mr. Pickton was an individual of "limited intelligence", pointing out that he once failed Grade Two. His mental slowness was taken advantage of by sophisticated police techniques, including numerous lies, leading him to make incriminating statements he did not mean.

They also argued that someone else may have committed the murders, pointing to a number of unsavoury characters who frequented the Pickton farm.

In a powerful closing submission to the jury, lawyer Adrian Brooks argued that the Crown had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

The jury who heard the exhaustive trial was a diverse group, with five retirees and two young women in their 20's among the 12 members.

Evidence in each of the six individual charges varied. In the case of Marnie Frey, the only link to Mr. Pickton was a piece of her jawbone found on the farm.

Judge Williams, during a lengthy charge to the jurors, advised them repeatedly that they had to be satisfied each charge was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, or they had to acquit on that charge.

The case of the missing women had gradually attained a high profile even before the headline-grabbing arrest of the bachelor farmer.

As the number of women who disappeared in the 1990's began to grow, activists working with prostitutes and concerned family members began raising an alarm.

But police were slow to react, saying early on there was no evidence of a serial killer at work and the Downtown Eastside was an area where the ups and downs of daily life led to comings and goings all the time.

After an investigation began in earnest however, the official list of missing women included more than 60 names.

It is expected that an inquiry into the initial police reaction and investigation in the case will be called once all legal proceedings against Mr. Pickton are finished.

With a report from Canadian Press

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