Canada

Lawyer says Paul Bernardo will 'express remorse' in parole bid. Here's why it's unlikely to sway the board

Former parole board members say the protection of public safety is the top priority

Posted: October 16, 2018
Last Updated: October 16, 2018

Paul Bernardo, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of teens Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, is seeking day parole. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Nearly 25 years after Paul Bernardo was convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of Ontario teens Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, their mothers will address the parole board members who will decide whether to grant the notorious killer some freedom.

Donna French and Debbie Mahaffy are expected to deliver their emotional victim impact statements Wednesday at the Bath Institution, west of Kingston, as their daughters' murderer seeks day parole. 

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Bernardo's chances are considered very slim.

Fergus (Chip) O'Connor, who recently represented Bernardo on a minor weapons charge that was ultimately dismissed, has already indicated that his client will take full responsibility for his crimes and "express remorse."

'Never ask about remorse'

But John Muise, a member of the Parole Board of Canada, Ontario region, from 2009 to 2014, said remorse was never a factor in his decisions.

"I never ask about remorse because it doesn't go to risk," he said. "And if they bring it up, I say things like: 'I appreciate the emotion, sir ... but remorse isn't related to risk."

Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and a former parole board member, agreed that while the liberty of an individual is at stake, public safety is "always the paramount concern."

"You make a decision based on the facts of the case, the information provided by many others, such as correctional officials, psychologists ... parole officers," he said. "It's a collective effort."

Bernardo and his then-wife Karla Homolka kidnapped, tortured and killed Leslie Mahaffy, 14, of Burlington, Ont., in June 1991 at their home in Port Dalhousie, Ont., before dismembering her body, encasing her remains in cement and dumping them in a nearby lake. Dubbed the "Scarborough rapist," Bernardo also tortured and killed Kristen French, 15, of St. Catharines, Ont., in April 1992 after keeping her captive for three days.

Bernardo's ex-wife, Karla Homolka, served 12 years until 2005 after pleading guilty to manslaughter in what critics branded as a 'deal with the devil.' It was revealed last year that the mother of three had been volunteering at a Montreal-area elementary school. (Radio-Canada)

Bernardo was convicted in 1995 of the first-degree murders of the two teens and numerous sexual assaults. He was given life without parole eligibility until he had served 25 years since his arrest in early 1993. He was also declared a dangerous offender. 

Unlike others convicted of first- or second-degree murder, a dangerous offender has an indeterminate sentence and it's rare that they are granted parole. 

Day parole, according to the Correctional Service of Canada website, allows an offender to participate in community-based activities in preparation for full parole or statutory release. Offenders on day parole must return nightly to a community-based residential facility or halfway house.

Muise said that along with the horrific nature of Bernardo's crimes and his declaration as a dangerous offender, Bernardo hasn't taken the important initial steps before day parole is granted, which include being granted escorted release or participating in a work camp.

More importantly, Muise said he doesn't believe there would be a community corrections facility that would let Bernardo stay there while out on day parole, and that it's highly doubtful the prison's parole officer will recommend his release.

"I can tell you that in five years I don't remember ever granting a day parole release where there was no support."

'Write a pretty powerful statement'

As the hearing begins, and after some administrative issues are addressed, Donna French and Debbie Mahaffy will be the first to speak. Their victim impact statements will have been previously submitted, and they are expected to stay on script.

"You can write a pretty powerful statement, and you have to couch it in a way that isn't intended to be provocative or condemnatory," Luciuk said.

I'd want to know why. How could you carry on these crimes? - John Muise, a former member of the Parole Board of Canada, Ontario region 

Both Muise and Luciuk said listening to those statements can be very difficult for the parole members.

"I can tell you you can hear a pin drop," Muise said. "Often, it is highly emotional, highly charged. And it's regularly heart-wrenching."

The parole board will also hear from the prison's parole officer, who will make recommendations as to why the offender deserves or does not deserve parole. 

The parole board members, armed with psychiatric evaluations, reports from Correctional Services and psychologists, and any progress reports, will then ask Bernardo questions. Parole applicants can appear in person or via video link.

Risk of reoffending

"I'd want to know why," Muise said. "How could you carry on these crimes? I need to understand the why of your offence cycle.

"What that does is identify for the board what kind of insight he has into his offence cycle."

Luciuk said parole members' interrogation of the offender is not meant to be provocative, but to ask substantive questions to determine fairly and objectively whether a person's risk of reoffending is high, low, medium or non-existent. 

"You will ask them questions about every aspect of [their] life," Luciuk said. "Some people drill down on the crimes the individual committed. Others talk more in hearings about what changes have occurred over the course of their sentence.

"And then it becomes a kind of informed judgment call."

Bernardo is shown in this courtroom sketch during Ontario court proceedings this month via video link in Napanee, Ont., on a minor weapons charge that was ultimately dismissed. (Greg Banning/Canadian Press)

Bernardo, 54, and his lawyer may also address the parole members with their own statements. The members will then retire to discuss the case, which can often be quite lengthy and complicated, Luciuk said.

"One or the other members will say, 'Well, I believe the following are the key issues, the key problems. Here's what I think is positive; here's what I think is a negative. I didn't believe this individual when they said that because they couldn't answer questions that were in the file.' This sort of thing and you have a kind of a frank discussion."

Nearly all decisions are made the same day, but they are required by law to be made within 15 days. Muise said if Bernardo is denied parole, and continues to have no support from Correctional Services or community correctional facilities, it's unlikely he will make an application for another five years.

A law introduced in 2015 allows parole boards to limit the application of an offender to five-year intervals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom
Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Canadian Press