Pickton inquiry's slow pace may undermine public confidence
The army of lawyers at the inquiry into the Robert Pickton case has received reinforcements, prompting the former judge overseeing the hearings to worry aloud that the public may soon lose confidence in the process.
In the past week, lawyers for more than half a dozen current and former Vancouver police and RCMP officers have joined the hearings, arguing their clients' reputations have been put at stake by a report that criticized how both forces investigated missing women and Pickton.
The collection of high-profile criminal lawyers all asked to cross-examine the author of that report, Peel Regional Police Deputy Chief Jennifer Evans, who conducted an external review for the commission. Evans has already been on the stand for five days, and the officers' lawyers want another week with her.
Commissioner Wally Oppal, who has until June 30 to complete his report into why Pickton wasn't caught, appeared exasperated Friday as he acceded to the request.
"The courts get bogged down by lengthy submissions and lengthy arguments and lengthy trials, and we're falling into the same trap here," Oppal said.
"We have to protect the integrity of the process, and that's what I'm concerned with. The public has a stake in this. At some stage, the public loses confidence in the process when it goes on and on and on."
Evans will come back at a later date, but it's not clear when.
There are already lawyers at the inquiry for 11 participants, including Vancouver police, the local police union, the RCMP, B.C.'s criminal justice branch and a group of the families of Pickton's victims, among others.
Each of those participants had to apply last year to participate, a contentious process that saw a dozen other advocacy groups receive standing before withdrawing when the provincial government denied them funding.
Oppal has not explained during the hearings why the latest lawyers to arrive were granted participant status without a similar process. Now that they're there, they'll be able to cross-examine witnesses, which will undoubtedly drag testimony on for longer.
Oppal opened the hearings last October, but he has yet to hear from a single officer involved in the case. His report is due by the end of June, and he plans to finish formal hearings by April 30.
Commission lawyers have drawn up a list of 42 potential witnesses, and the families of Pickton's victims have asked that another 20 be added.
'Immense, if not impossible, challenge'
Neil Chantler, a lawyer who's representing the families of 25 missing and murdered women, said the additional counsel will make it even more difficult to reach Oppal's fast-approaching deadline.
Chantler said the added lawyers will mean the hearings are overwhelmingly dominated by police agencies and their officers.
"I suggest that reaching our collective goal of hearing from all of these witnesses is already going to be an immense, if not impossible, challenge," Chantler told the inquiry.
"It may also create a public perception that this process favours the interest in the police over the community groups who were not able to participate," Chantler added, referring to the groups that were denied legal funding.
David Butcher, one of the new lawyers who is representing Staff Sgt. Brock Giles of the Vancouver police, said officers whose reputations are at stake must be represented.
He said the police departments can't be expected to defend each officer who faces criticism at the hearings.
"It's simply not possible for them [the Vancouver police] to do that, I represent his reputational interest," Butcher said.
Lori-Ann Ellis, whose sister-in-law Cara Ellis's remains were found on Pickton's farm, said she was disheartened that yet more police lawyers were added to the inquiry. Cara Ellis was among the 20 women Pickton was charged with killing before those charges were stayed.
Ellis sat in court wearing a shirt emblazoned with a photo of her sister-in-law to mark 15 years to the day that Cara disappeared.
"It's really imbalanced," Ellis said in an interview outside the hearings.
"If the courtroom was a boat, we would capsize. There's so much weight on the police's side right now, we would just tip right over and be lost in the ocean."
The hearings are examining why Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch Pickton as he murdered sex workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Investigators received the first tips implicating Pickton in 1998, but he wasn't caught until February 2002, when officers showed up at his Port Coquitlam farm with a search warrant related to illegal firearms and stumbled upon the belongings and remains of missing women.
Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, but the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm. He claimed to have killed a total of 49 women.