of the province's top judges pleaded with relatives of missing women for patience and understanding yesterday as the grim matter struggles its way to trial through a mountain of possible evidence.
Patrick Dohm, associate chief justice of the Supreme Court of B.C., spoke out as it appeared that the trial of Robert Pickton, charged with killing 15 of the women, may not take place until 2006, four years after Mr. Pickton's arrest.
"Every effort is being made to get this matter on for trial," said Mr. Justice Dohm, agreeing with a request by Crown and defence lawyers to put off setting a firm date for Mr. Pickton's trial yet again.
"It may not appear so, particularly to the families. I am asking you to be patient for a little while longer."
The cramped, 50-seat courtroom was packed with spectators, family members and the media for what many hoped would be some indication when proceedings against Mr. Pickton, accused of being Canada's worst serial killer, would start.
In addition to the 15 counts of first-degree murder already facing the suburban pig farmer, the Crown has said it expects to lay seven more first-degree murder charges against Mr. Pickton before his trial begins.
Remains of another nine women connected to the case have since been found and identified. All 31 are among dozens of women who disappeared from Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside over the years. Most were drug-addicted sex-trade workers. Many were aboriginal.
Judge Dohm said there are more potential exhibits in this case than in the recently concluded Air-India trial, which stretched 19 months. "It takes time to process these exhibits."
Victims have been identified through DNA traces found at Mr. Pickton's former farm and another area not disclosed by police. More than 100,000 swabs from these locations have been processed so far at forensic laboratories.
Lawyers for both sides said they are working closely together to expedite the defence team's ability to scrutinize these and other exhibits accumulated by police.
"The enormity of material is perhaps unparalleled," defence lawyer Peter Ritchie told the court.
He said it was better to delay the trial, rather than "rush it on" and have it disrupted later by some unexpected "testing result" that surfaces in the middle of court proceedings. "We want to do this trial properly. We want to do it once."
Mr. Pickton appeared in court by video link from the remand facility where he remains in custody. Wearing an orange prison suit, he sat placidly, his hands on his lap, seeming to nod off at times during the morning session.
Judge Dohm set two new dates. Parties are to appear on March 31, to report further on their legal progress in the case, and on June 22, when he indicated he will announce a judge for the trial.
Even if pretrial hearings begin next fall, they are expected to take at least four months, making it almost impossible for official proceedings to begin until some time in 2006.
Afterward, relatives of the missing women said their ongoing frustration was mollified by Judge Dohm's words and by learning more about how the complexity of the case is being managed.
"I am going home today with a sense that things are moving forward," said Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn's DNA was discovered at the Pickton pig farm. "But there's only so much patience on the part of the families."
Mr. Crey said his family is also troubled by the fact that Mr. Pickton has not yet been charged in Dawn's death.
Lynn Frey, stepmother of victim Marnie Frey, said the long wait for closure doesn't get any easier as time goes by.
"But I know they [the lawyers] have to do their job. If it takes a long time, it takes a long time. Just so he doesn't get off."
Mr. Ritchie, meanwhile, said there are five lawyers, plus staff, working full-time on Mr. Pickton's defence.