Victims' families describe pain, grief before Paul Bernardo denied parole a 2nd time

A national parole board panel hearing the impassioned pleas of Paul Bernardo's victims has turned down a request for release by the convicted Ontario killer and serial rapist. One mother says her pain is a "life sentence."

Lawyer says Mahaffy, French families want their daughters' voices heard

Ontario residents Kristen French, left, of St. Catharines was 15 and Leslie Mahaffy, of Burlington, was 14 when they were killed by Paul Bernardo. His bid before the Parole Board of Canada for release was turned down Tuesday. (Handout/The Canadian Press)

A national parole board panel hearing the impassioned pleas of Paul Bernardo's victims on Tuesday turned down the convicted Ontario killer and serial rapist's request for parole.

For the second time in less than three years, the families of teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy vehemently opposed the release of Bernardo, who's serving life at Millhaven maximum-security prison in Bath in eastern Ontario. A survivor of one of his attacks also spoke at the Parole Board of Canada hearing.

Donna French, Kristen's mother, expressed the enduring pain her family has felt since her daughter's death.

"For those who say that time heals, they don't know the excruciating pain that comes from such a horrific loss," she told the panel. 

"Time doesn't heal the pain. The pain is a life sentence."

French spoke at the virtual hearing about the 29 years of experiences her daughter would never have, and the agonizing process of accepting all she had to endure. 

Bernardo's crimes in the 1980s and early '90s include kidnapping, torturing and killing Kristen and Leslie  near St. Catharines. Bernardo, now 56, was convicted in 1995. 

WATCH | Lawyer of victims' families describe 'gut-wrenching' Bernardo hearing:

Families of Paul Bernardo's victims watch 2nd parole hearing

1 year ago
Duration 2:13
Tim Danson, longtime lawyer for the families of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, two of Paul Bernardo's victims, says the legislation for parole hearings needs to change. Only two years and eight months have passed since Bernardo's first request for parole, which was also denied.

Bernardo, a designated dangerous offender, has been eligible for full parole for more than three years. But relatives of his victims have remained adamant he should never be allowed out of prison. 

2018 parole attempt denied

In his first attempt at parole, in October 2018, it took the board just 30 minutes to reject his request.

"It seems that just as the ink has dried on our previous victim impact statement, Doug [Kristen's father] and I have to muster up the strength to prepare a second statement," French said Tuesday. 

"This is a painful and difficult process as there are no words that can capture the depth of our loss, anguish and despair."

Read aloud by lawyer Tim Danson, the statement from Debbie Mahaffy, Leslie's mother, talked about how this second attempt at parole felt like another exhumation, violation and loss.

"Thirty years have passed since Leslie was taken from us, but the memories of that horrendous time are just as vivid today as they were then. There is no escape for us from this horror," the statement said. 

Parole hearings for offenders like Bernardo, she wrote, should be at least five years apart.

In a media briefing over Zoom following the decision, Danson said the parole board should consider not holding hearings in the same month a crime took place, as Leslie was killed in June. 

"You can well imagine they're [family] already under extreme stress." 

Leslie, of Burlington, was 14 in June 1991 when Bernardo and his then wife, Karla Homolka, tortured and killed her at their Port Dalhousie home.

Kristen, of St. Catharines, was 15 when she was held captive for three days and killed in April 1992. 

'Please keep him where he is'

Bernardo has admitted to raping at least 14 women and girls.

A survivor of one of his attacks told the parole board that she wants to forgive Bernardo, but also wants him to "rot."

"Please don't be fooled by this if I am the only living survivor to testify here today… I beg you on behalf of all of us, please keep him where he is," she said.

Bernardo was also convicted of manslaughter in the death of Homolka's 15-year-old sister, Tammy. In December 1990, she was drugged, sexually assaulted and died. 

Homolka was released in 2005 after pleading guilty to manslaughter and serving 12 years in prison.

CBC's Ellen Mauro, who watched the proceedings Tuesday, said Bernardo wore a blue T-shirt and listened to the statements without showing emotion. 

'You remain to be a high risk'

The parole board, which also heard from Bernardo, said he won't be granted release on either full or day parole. 

"You remain to be a high risk for sexual reoffending," the board said after deliberating for about 50 minutes. 

Bernardo spoke about the stress of losing human contact in isolation. He said he was wrong to think anxiety was to blame for his crimes, and he has brought himself to a level of "extraordinary restraint." 

"It is not who I am today," he said. 

Maureen Gauci, one of two parole board panellists, said that despite Bernardo's claims he has stopped all deviant sexual behaviour, he hadn't had exposure to women he could control.

Danson said the families thought Bernardo taking credit for this was "remarkable."

Bernardo insisted that with his plan — which included medication, psychiatry sessions and going to church — he was "without a doubt low risk."

Bernardo is serving life at Millhaven, a maximum-security prison in eastern Ontario. (Pam Davies)

He said he had empathy for the victims and would follow any conditions for parole. Bernardo expressed a desire to live near his parents in Ontario or in British Columbia, saying a halfway house in Kelowna was willing to accept him. 

But Danson said Bernardo's suggestion he'd move to another province, going so far as to say he would pick fruit in B.C., was "repugnant" to the families. 

The panel said Bernardo's understanding and insight remain limited, and he hasn't made the progress it needed to see. 

Families push for parole hearing changes

Danson said while the families were pleased with Tuesday's decision, they'll continue to push for legislation that doesn't require parole hearings to happen every two years, calling it a gut-wrenching occurrence. 

The families, he said, found much of Bernardo's presentation glib and arrogant. They describe a "rant" from Bernardo mid-hearing as deeply offensive and shameful, as well as a moment when he described one of his crimes against a victim.

At one point, Bernardo referred to his punishment as being cruel and unusual. 

"He of all people to talk about what's cruel and unusual," Danson said, noting it seemed Bernardo was using the hearing for "personal entertainment."

The lawyer noted the families don't oppose Bernardo being integrated into the general prison population — he's currently mostly in solitary confinement. But the board said it sees issues with his safety.

Danson said he believes Bernardo's chances of getting out are "zero to nil," but the families will continue to fight as long as the convicted killer is still alive.

"They're here for their daughters, to have their daughters' voice heard." 

With files from Ellen Mauro, The Canadian Press