The Supreme Court has lifted a sweeping publication ban in the case involving Victoria Stafford, which means that media can for the first time report that one of the accused — Terri-Lynne McClintic — pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of the eight-year-old girl.
Media lawyers, including those from the CBC, had been fighting for months to overturn the ban, arguing that the public had a right to know what happened in the murder trial related to the case.
Stafford went missing on April 8, 2009, outside her Woodstock, Ont., school. Terri-Lynne McClintic, 20, and Michael Rafferty, 30, were arrested in May 2009 and charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping.
McClintic is expected to be the star witness at his trial, likely in 2011. It will not be until after Rafferty's trial that the full publication ban on the case will expire. Rafferty's lawyer, Dirk Derstine, said his client intends to plead not guilty and will be "vigorously contesting all the allegations that are before him."
Derstine said the question remains whether his client will receive a fair trial "or whether or not people will decide that merely because somebody else in this matter pled guilty that it must be absolutely that he is guilty."
"Clearly the more that the public hears about it, the more sensational the allegations are, the more widespread they are, the more likely it is that people will have a hard time putting it out of their mind and giving him the fair trial that he deserves."
On April 30, McClintic pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in a Woodstock courtroom and was sentenced to a mandatory penalty of life in prison. A kidnapping charge against her was withdrawn.
Ontario Superior Court Judge Dougald McDermid ordered a temporary publication ban that prohibited the media from providing any further information until a further order of the court. He later extended the publication ban.
It raised hackles across the country. Front-page newspaper editorials lambasted it as going too far, and experts in media law called the extent of the ban unusual and one that would simply fuel rampant speculation.
"This is a highly unusual thing in Canadian experience," said Dan Henry, lawyer for CBC News. "[McClintic] was sentenced to life in prison. This happened April 30. We weren’t able to tell you until today, which is highly unusual.
"There were concerns that were expressed that the judge dealt with ultimately in May about whether publishing that information would have an impact on the trial that is yet to be held for Mr. Rafferty, and that is the reason for the debate about what should and shouldn’t be published, but ultimately the effect of all of this is we are now able to tell you the story of what happened on April 30."
According to court documents released Thursday, Stafford stopped to chat with McClintic on April 8, 2009. They had a conversation about dogs. McClintic told Stafford she had a Shih Tzu named Precious. Stafford told McClintic she also had a Shih Tzu and said she would like to see McClintic's dog.
That encounter took place near Stafford's school in Woodstock and was captured by a surveillance camera. McClintic admitted in court she was using drugs around the time Stafford was abducted.