Edmonton

Judge rules cameras can be in courtroom for Travis Vader murder verdict

Media outlets argued for cameras to record long-awaited decision

Posted: September 13, 2016
Last Updated: September 13, 2016

Travis Vader is charged with first-degree murder in the 2010 deaths of Lyle and Marie McCann. A decision in his trial is expected on Thursday. (Amber Bracken/Canadian Press )

For the first time at an Alberta criminal trial, a television camera will be allowed into the courtroom Thursday to record the long-awaited decision in the Travis Vader murder case.

Edmonton's Court of Queen's Bench Justice Denny Thomas ruled Tuesday he will allow cameras into the court, after he heard submissions last week from lawyers representing a consortium of media outlets — including the CBC, Global, CTV, The Canadian Press and Postmedia — who argued for the access.

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The prosecutor in the case argued against allowing cameras.

But Thomas said the Crown's argument failed to convince him that allowing a camera to record the verdict would create a serious risk to the administration of justice. On the contrary, the judge said he hoped allowing the application would increase public confidence in the justice system and would raise public awareness.

He said he hoped that having a camera in court would make the public more aware "that judges are obligated by law to give reasons for their decision which are both comprehensible and transparent."  

Vader is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the July 2010 deaths of seniors Lyle and Marie McCann.

After a six-month trial, Thomas is scheduled to hand down his decision in the case on Thursday morning.

Media lawyer Matthew Woodley speaks to the media outside the Edmonton courthouse after winning the application to record the Travis Vader verdict. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

Ruling 'a big deal'

Outside court on Tuesday, media lawyer Matt Woodley called the camera ruling important.

"This is going to be the first time we've done this in the Court of Queen's Bench in Alberta," he said. "It's in a very important criminal case that deals with many, many important public interest issues. So from my perspective, I'm hoping it will show these things can be done in a way that will increase public scrutiny, but will not have any detrimental effects to participants in the justice system."

CBC Edmonton managing editor Gary Cunliffe said he was pleased with the judge's decision.

"The lawyers representing the CBC and other media outlets presented a clear argument, and all Albertans will benefit from this ruling," he said.  

Media lawyers requested camera access solely for the delivery of the judge's ruling. Proponents for camera access have argued that media outlets already use Twitter to transmit every trial development, and occasionally verbatim testimony, and argued the presence of cameras is not unreasonable.

Those who oppose such access often argue that cameras could turn trials into spectacles, with lawyers grandstanding for the audience. Some have said cameras could make witnesses more reluctant to come forward to testify.

Cameras have never before been allowed in an Alberta courtroom for a criminal trial, though they are not prohibited by law.

The debate about cameras in the courtroom has bounced around Canadian courts for decades. Cameras are frequently present at inquiries and hearings. And the Supreme Court of Canada has broadcast most of its proceedings on CPAC, the Cable Public Affairs Channel, since the 1990s. 

But the issue of cameras at criminal trials has been far more contentious, and applications are made on a case-by-case basis. Cameras have generally not been allowed.

Part of the distinction revolves around witnesses. Unlike trials, there are no witnesses in appeal courts, just lawyers arguing their points. That reality has made trial judges far less accepting of cameras in their courtrooms.

Thomas is scheduled to deliver his verdict in the case at 10 a.m. on Thursday.

The judge has said he does not plan to read his entire 131-page decision, which totals 68,000 words.  

"The scope and scale of the formal written judgement is simply too large to read out in court in its entirety," he said.

Instead, the judge plans to provide what he described as a "very high-level overview of the written decision, designed to allow the public to get a general idea of the approach to the decision-making process."

 The decision will be live streamed on CBCNews.ca.

The full written decision will be available online.