Travis Vader decision livestream coverage: you had questions, we have answers

Thousands watched an Edmonton judge deliver his decision Thursday in the Travis Vader double murder trial, either online or on television. For many, the coverage offered a first real look inside a Canadian criminal trial. Viewers raised many questions about the process.

For many viewers, the Travis Vader decision offered a first look inside a criminal trial in Canada

Brian Beresh, defence lawyer for Travis Vader, speaks to the media outside the courthouse on Thursday, September 15, 2016. ((CBC))

Thousands watched an Edmonton judge deliver his decision in the Travis Vader double murder trial on Thursday, either online or on television.

For many, it was their first real look inside a Canadian criminal trial. While anyone is welcome to walk through the heavy doors of Canadian courtrooms, most people don't have the time, interest or motivation to do it. 

In this case, CBC and other media outlets asked Court of Queen's Bench Justice Denny Thomas for permission to record, and livestream, the delivery of his decision. The judge said yes. It was the first time a camera has been allowed inside a criminal trial in Alberta.

CBC Edmonton livestreamed the decision on its Facebook page. Viewers responded with questions about court procedures and the live feed itself. We answer a few of those here.

Why was the decision so long?

It took Thomas more than 50 minutes to read his ruling — and that was just a summary of his full 131-page written decision.

In Canada, a trial by judge alone requires the judge to provide reasons for his or her decision. Juries, however, are only required to deliver verdicts of "guilty" or "not guilty."

Vader was on trial for first-degree murder in the deaths of St. Albert seniors Lyle and Marie McCann, who disappeared in July 2010 while on a trip to British Columbia in their motorhome. Their remains have not been found.

The judge in this case heard three months of detailed evidence, including witness testimony and forensic evidence. Thomas had to evaluate factors such as the reliability and credibility of evidence, and how much weight to give it in his decision — and he had to explain those findings.

The judge also had to explain how the evidence did or did not fit the legal requirements for a conviction on the first-degree murder charges Vader faced.

​Why did media want to broadcast the decision?

While American court proceedings are frequently shown on TV, that is not the case in Canada where cameras have essentially been shut out of criminal trials. Some of the country's appeals courts, however, have broadcast proceedings, and some inquiries have also been broadcast.

But media outlets have pushed for more access, such as the ability to use computers and smartphones in the courtroom so reporters can send dispatches via Twitter or other social media platforms. Media outlets have also pushed for more access to exhibits, such as photographs presented during a trial.

Media lawyer Fred Kozak said allowing a camera in the courtroom in the Vader decision would give "a spirit and greater meaning to the concept of an open judicial system. Because there are many people who take an active interest in our judicial system who simply can't attend court proceedings. So they're effectively shut out from seeing and hearing what goes on in the courtroom."

Part of the decision to allow a camera into the courtroom stipulated that it focus only on the judge reading his decision, and not on the accused, the lawyers, or onlookers in the courtroom.

How much time will Travis Vader spend in prison?

It's important to note that Vader's defence lawyer has already indicated he will appeal the judge's ruling, but a second-degree murder conviction carries an automatic life sentence, with no possibility to apply for parole for between 10 and 25 years.

The ability to apply for parole doesn't mean an offender is guaranteed to receive it. 

At a sentencing hearing to take place in the coming months, the Crown prosecutors and Vader's defence lawyer will argue for a length of parole ineligibility, using the 10-year starting point. The judge will have to consider aggravating and mitigating factors before making his decision.

In 2015, Stephen Harper's Conservative government introduced legislation that would allow judges to impose consecutive sentences when more than one person is killed in a crime. However, the McCanns were killed before the changes were brought into effect so that sentencing principle cannot be used.

Why were there Emojis on my screen while I watched the decision?

This is an automatic function of the Facebook live video feature that CBC used to broadcast the decision online.

When Facebook launched new features for its live video service in April 2016, it included the ability for Emoji reactions, such as Love, Haha, Wow, Sad or Angry. The symbols automatically appear at the top of live video streams.