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christie blatchford

Even judges, who can render almost anything sterile, can't do much with the Robert (Willie) Pickton case. No matter how learned their language, how legalistic the argument, how finely parsed the issue, details of the man and his murders are so ghastly as to be beyond sanitizing.

I was reminded of this reading the 71-page B.C. Court of Appeal judgment of last year. It's not often such judgments induce anything other than drowsiness, but I felt sick reading this one.

That decision, which upheld Mr. Pickton's 2007 conviction in the deaths of six drug-addicted prostitutes - he is believed to have killed as many as 49 women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and once told an undercover officer he was aiming to quit when he hit the magic number of 50 - was itself last week upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.

What followed this week was the lifting of the publication ban on evidence the jurors at his trial didn't hear, and the immediate publication of much of that.

This being Canada, what comes next is the hue and cry for a full public inquiry; it has begun already.

Various groups, including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, are demanding one; newspaper editorialists are muttering darkly about how Mr. Pickton might have been stopped in his tracks much earlier and some of the victims' relatives are wondering, reasonably enough, if their daughters might have been spared if the system had worked better.

The collective focus is on a case involving an unnamed prostitute - her name is still protected - who on March 22, 1997, agreed to go to Mr. Pickton's 17-acre pig farm in Port Coquitlam to perform oral sex.

What happened there was a veritable bloodbath that left both the woman and Mr. Pickton almost dead from stab wounds.

They separately ended up at Royal Columbian Hospital, where the woman, still with handcuffs around one wrist, was treated for two stab wounds to her abdomen, slashes to her hands and arms, and a knife wound to her right side. Mr. Pickton had a large cut to the left side of his neck. Both of them had lost about three litres of blood.

Eventually, when a doctor wanted to remove the woman's handcuff, police went through Mr. Pickton's clothing, found a handcuff key which when taken to the operating room, worked.

This incident pre-dated the disappearance of the six women he was convicted of killing and 15 of the other 20 he was at one time accused of murdering (these charges, severed from the first six, were stayed when the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, meaning he was staying in jail).

Though Mr. Pickton was charged with attempted murder, assault with a weapon and forcible confinement, the charges were stayed the following year either because the prosecutor considered the woman too unstable to testify or because the woman herself wasn't willing.

At best, she would have had enormous credibility problems and a rough go on the stand: She had a chronic cocaine and heroin addiction and was still using; she had previous run-ins with both police and ambulance attendants, as well as episodes of what Mr. Pickton's lawyer Peter Ritchie once described as "psychotic" behaviour during which she had to be restrained.

A drug-addict prostitute, who freely admitted to slashing Mr. Pickton in the neck and to injecting a speedball (a mixture of heroin and cocaine) after the two had sex but before the violence erupted, is not the ideal witness in a he-said/she-said contest, which this was.

A good defence lawyer - and Mr. Pickton was at the time claiming he'd acted in self-defence - would have had a field day with the woman.

Years later, after Mr. Pickton had been arrested in the missing women's case, clothing that he'd worn that night, which had been retrieved by the police at the time and kept in storage, was submitted for DNA testing.

Evidence from two missing women was discovered on his jacket and the sole of one of his boots: Thus prong two of the claim now that Mr. Pickton's killing spree could have been aborted if only police and prosecutors had done their jobs way back when. Of course, this ignores the fact that as I said off the top, most of the missing-women victims hadn't yet disappeared.

Certainly, it appears that the police were slow to take some of the disappearances seriously, or to link them. Both the Vancouver Police and the RCMP have admitted making mistakes and apologized for them.

But in fairness, at least some of those women were never reported missing; they were so estranged from their families, or had so little contact, that their protracted absences were unremarkable.

And the bottom line, and the truth about Mr. Pickton, is that he is blessedly a rare bird, a prolific serial killer, with reprehensible friends and acquaintances (a few of whom are still suspected of involvement in some of the killings, at minimum of having known what Willie was up to).

There may be lessons yet to be learned from a full-blown public inquiry, but I'm damned if I can see them. That working girls who vanish from sight are treated differently by police than 10-year-old children who are abducted or more respectable citizens who have never gone missing? Probably true, regrettable, but this is police triage, and it's as inevitable as it is in an emergency room. That prosecutors sometimes drop charges they shouldn't? Probably so. That defence lawyers will fight 'til the cows come home to keep as much damaging evidence from juries as they can? Duh. That justice is sometimes as much about getting the right result, pragmatically, as getting it the right way? You bet.