Toronto

Paul Bernardo trial judge says province should help traumatized jurors

The judge in the Toronto trial of convicted murderer Paul Bernardo in the 1990s says it's important that that province provide jurors with access to counselling and medical assistance.

Patrick LeSage regrets not raising issue of counselling for jurors when he was Ontario chief justice

Former Ontario chief justice Patrick LeSage, who presided over the Toronto trial of convicted killer Paul Bernardo in the 1990s, says the province should devise a system to ensure jurors are provided mental health support if needed. (Michelle Cheung)

The judge in the Toronto trial of convicted murderer Paul Bernardo in the 1990s says it's important that that province provide jurors with access to counselling and medical assistance.

"They don't need to be murders," says Patrick LeSage, former chief justice of the Superior Court in Ontario. "There are some of the other trials that are similarly traumatizing. We ask a lot of our jurors and they provide a wonderful service to our justice system. 

"In trying to show how they are totally separate from the other part of the justice system, we have probably isolated them too much and that includes offering assistance at the end of a trial," adds LeSage, who retired from the bench 13 years ago.

LeSage's comments come after a former juror, Mark Farrant, told CBC News he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome following a murder trial. Farrant is campaigning to get the province to offer counselling to jurors traumatized by what they've seen and heard during proceedings.

The province currently leaves counselling for jurors to the discretion of the presiding judges.  

'I had been a judge for many years by the time that trial had started but I still find it disturbing.' - Patrick  LeSage , Former Ontario Chief Justice, on Bernardo trial

In his 29 years as a judge, LeSage says, he can only remember two occasions in which he suggested or ordered counselling for jurors after a trial.

The Bernardo trial in 1995 was one of them.

He was convicted of the kidnapping, torture and murder of teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy in St. Catharines, and sentenced to life in prison with no hope of parole for 25 years.  

Jurors saw and heard videos that showed Bernardo abusing French and Mahaffy, who were heard screaming and begging for their lives in the footage.

"I had been a judge for many years by the time that trial had started, but I still find it disturbing, so I thought many others who haven't had the experience that I've had will find it disturbing. So, yes, I started thinking about it fairly early on," LeSage said.

"It's the only one where I had arranged for it to be provided, but that was somewhat of an extraordinary trial, and also I had more assistance in that case than I would have in more cases."

He says he sought counselling after that case and believes it should be an option for jurors.

LeSage says he now regrets not raising the issue when he was chief justice.

"I had already done the Bernardo trial at that point, so people probably thought, 'Well he should know, he should do something.' In hindsight, I think maybe I should have. In hindsight, I'm sorry I didn't."

LeSage says he has spoken to Farrant about his efforts to raise the issue with government officials.

1 juror's story

Farrant was diagnosed with PTSD after he and 11 other jurors sat through a four-month murder trial in 2014.

He recounted to CBC News how he felt stunned at how abruptly the jurors' role ended after they rendered their verdict.

"Should there not be somebody here who comes in and says, 'You've all been through a lot privately to the jury…. and here are the services that are now available to you. Here are the people you can call if you're feeling any of these symptoms?'"

The provincial Ministry of the Attorney General says it doesn't keep statistics as to how many judges in Ontario order counselling for jurors.

Other provinces approach counselling this way:

  • Manitoba has established a system that offers jury members four hours of counselling with a social worker after a trial if a judge deems it necessary.
  • In Quebec, a judge can approve the cost of five one-hour sessions with a psychologist if jurors present a prescription.

LeSage hopes province will reconsider

"At the present time, Ontario believes that ordering counselling for jurors is best left to the discretion of the trial judge since the judge can most accurately gauge the gravity of the evidence presented at trial," said Brendan Crawley, spokesman for the ministry, in a statement to CBC News.

LeSage says he hopes the province will reconsider:

"It's the juror who knows. Maybe only one of 12 will be affected, maybe two, maybe five, maybe all 12. And they wouldn't all know at that time, so I don't think just leaving it to the judges is good enough," he said.