Friday, July 30, 2010

Supreme Court uphold's Robert Pickton's murder conviction

From Eugene Meehan's SCC lawletter:

The accused was charged with several counts of first degree murder after the police found the dismembered remains of the victims on his property. Throughout the trial, the Crown maintained that the accused had actually shot and killed the women. The defence took the position that the Crown had failed to prove that the accused was the sole perpetrator, suggesting the potential involvement of others to the exclusion of the accused. On the fourth and last day of instructions to the jury, the defence requested that the trial judge specifically instruct the jury in accordance with the respective theories of the parties. The Crown consented to the request and the trial judge instructed the jury on those counts in respect of which the evidence was clear that the victim had died of a gunshot wound that, if they found that the accused had shot the victims, they should find that the Crown has proven the identity of the killer. On the other hand, if they had a reasonable doubt about whether or not he had shot the victims, they should return a verdict of not guilty. Following a question from the jury on the sixth day of deliberations, the trial judge re-instructed the jury that they could also find that the accused was the killer if he "was otherwise an active participant" in the killings. At the conclusion of the lengthy trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of second degree murder on each of the counts. The accused appealed his convictions, arguing that the trial judge's retraction of the "actual shooter" instruction on the sixth day of deliberations adversely impacted on the fairness of the trial and occasioned a miscarriage of justice. The Court of Appeal, in a majority decision, rejected the accused's argument and upheld the convictions. The dissenting judge would have granted a new trial on the ground that the trial judge's failure to instruct the jury on the law of aiding and abetting and how it might apply to this case amounted to a miscarriage of justice."

The SCC (unanimous) dismissed the appeal.

Justice Charron wrote as follows (at pages 4-6):
"In this Court, Mr. Pickton repeats his argument that there was a miscarriage of justice and relies for support on the dissenting judgment of Donald J.A.
In my view, the majority was correct in finding that no miscarriage of justice was occasioned in this trial. There is no question that the trial judge could have instructed the jury more fully on the different modes of participation that could ground criminal liability, including the law on aiding and abetting. In hindsight and from a legalistic standpoint, it is easy to argue that he probably should have done so. However, the adequacy of the jury instructions must be assessed in the context of the evidence and the trial as a whole. There is nothing wrong, particularly in complex or lengthy trials, with the trial judge and counsel's narrowing the issues for the jury by focussing on what is actually and realistically at issue in the case, provided that, at the end of the day, the jury is given the necessary instructions to arrive at a just and proper verdict.
Realistically, this case was never about whether Mr. Pickton had a minor role in the murder of the victims. It was about whether or not he had actually killed them. Accordingly, the jury was left with instructions that required the Crown to prove that he "actively participated", and thus had a physical role, in the killings of the six women. As stated earlier, from a legalistic standpoint, these instructions did not reflect all potential modes of participation. However, by limiting the grounds of liability in this manner, the instructions were unduly favourable to the defence. Mr. Pickton argues nonetheless that there was a miscarriage of justice. His argument rests on the fact that the trial judge ultimately retracted the actual shooter instruction from the jury's consideration. In my view, this argument must fail. The actual shooter instruction was not only erroneous in law, but also on the facts of this case it was its addition to the charge which courted a miscarriage of justice. The jury was invited to acquit Mr. Pickton based on a factual doubt which at law did not necessarily exculpate him. The trial judge was therefore correct in ultimately rectifying this error by appropriately re-charging the jury.

Further, given the evidence at trial, the absence of an instruction on Mr. Pickton's liability as an aider and abettor could only have enured to his benefit. Although imperfect, the overall charge adequately conveyed to the jury the relevant legal principles as they applied to the facts of the case. I would dismiss the appeal and affirm the convictions."
In his partially concurring reasons, Justice LeBel wrote as follows (at pages 1-3):
"The primary issue in this appeal is the adequacy of jury instructions given at the end of a long and disturbing six-count murder trial which lasted almost a full year. Although we must necessarily conduct a careful review of those trial proceedings with a view to ensuring that justice is done on the particular facts of this case, it is also important that the applicable law be carefully delineated and clarified for future cases. I am reminded of the words of Doherty J.A. in R. v. Bernardo (1997), 121 C.C.C. (3d) 123 (Ont. C.A.), at para. 19: "[D]etached and reflective appellate review of the trial process is perhaps most important in notorious, emotion-charged cases involving the least deserving accused."

The notion of "co-principal" liability, properly understood, did not arise on the evidence presented at trial, although other forms of party liability did. Even if the instruction receives a new label of "other suspects" liability, this cosmetic, rhetorical change does not dispel the error or change the reality of what happened during the trial. The re-charge whereby the trial judge instructed the jury that they could convict Mr. Pickton if they found he was the actual shooter or "was otherwise an active participant" in the killings clearly opened up party liability as an alternate route to conviction. That having been done, it was an error for the trial judge not to have left a full aiding and abetting instruction with the jury in order to set out the alternate route properly by which the jury could convict Mr. Pickton for the six murders with which he was charged. The phrases "active participation", "acting in concert", or "joint venture" do not in and of themselves adequately convey the law of party liability to a trier of fact.

With respect, I must therefore disagree with my colleague Charron J. that the trial judge's overall instructions, including the re-charge following the jury's question on the sixth day of their deliberations, can be said to have adequately conveyed the relevant legal principles as they applied to the facts of the case. She concludes that "[t]he instructions could not have led the jury into improper reasoning" (para. 34). It is indeed hazardous to speculate on the process of the jury's deliberation, but, the unusual verdict of second degree murder returned by the jury after they posed their question may well suggest that the instructions in this case were inadequate. However, as there exists on the record overwhelming evidence of Mr. Pickton's guilt, and no miscarriage of justice was occasioned by this error in the instructions, I would apply the curative proviso found in s. 686 of the Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, dismiss the appeal, and affirm the convictions."



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