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Week 12: Court decides jury will hear from fewer officers

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C.

It took 12 weeks of hearing testimony in court before they could agree on how to handle the evidence.

However, prosecutors and defence lawyers at the first-degree multiple-murder trial of Robert Pickton finally reached an agreement to expedite the introduction of evidence.

Lead prosecutor Michael Petrie told the jury during the 12th week of the trial that every police officer who touched an exhibit — from the moment an item was found until the time a witness tells the jury about it — will no longer be required to testify in court. The officers will be required to recount their role only when either the prosecution or defence identifies a contentious issue, he said.

Outside the courtroom, defence lawyer Adrian Brooks said the new arrangement could cut one to two weeks off the remainder of the trial.

Mr. Pickton is on trial for the murder of six women — Marnie Frey, Sereena Abotsway, Andrea Joesbury, Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe and Mona Wilson. He is charged with the murder of an additional 20 women but a date has not yet been set for those charges to be heard in court.

The agreement came after the court spent a considerable amount of time hearing so-called continuity evidence about dozens of items seized during a 20-month search of Mr. Pickton's pig farm. The high-profile trial, which began Jan. 22, was initially expected to take a year and hear from more than 200 witnesses.

Several weeks of the trial have been spent so far on hearing testimony from police officers who found thousands of items relevant to their investigation on the Pickton property. The jury heard from those who formally seized the items and catalogued them, and from just about everyone else who had contact with the exhibits up to the time they became evidence in the trial.

Mr. Petrie announced the agreement in court just before the testimony of Constable Beverly Zaporozan, an exhibit custodian. She was the 59th witness.

Constable Zaporozan subsequently confirmed that numerous items were found by police during their investigation, including syringes, condoms, a shell casing, a pig carcass, a flare gun, a revolver with a dildo over the barrel, women's clothing, pages from an address book and lipstick. She also confirmed she received bones located on the Pickton property after autopsies were held.

In response to questioning by Mr. Brooks, she told the court she was part of the team of police officers who seized a grey tote bag that contained an inhaler belonging to Ms. Abotsway.

Later, the jury heard from odon-tology expert David Sweet about the process of recovering DNA from the teeth of two of the alleged victims. DNA was extracted from three teeth from Ms. Abotsway's skull and two from Ms. Joesbury's skull. However, DNA from other persons was also found on one of Ms. Abotsway's teeth and on Ms. Joesbury's teeth, he said.

David Morissette, a forensic scientist with the RCMP, told the court during the 11th week that the source of the additional DNA had never been identified. Mr. Pickton and everyone else on the DNA database compiled by investigators were ruled out as the source of DNA on one of Ms. Joesbury's teeth. The scientists did not really know how the DNA became associated with the women's teeth, he said.

Dr. Sweet, who heads the Bureau of Legal Dentistry that conducted the DNA analysis, said he had no explanation for the discovery of DNA of other people. A similar situation had never occurred before or after this case, he said, adding that the lab did not change its procedures following the discovery of the mixed DNA profiles. “I don't know what happened,” he said, “so I don't know what steps to take to prevent it.”

Meanwhile, tempers flared during the 12th week of the trial when an experienced scientist was pressed to explain why results that excluded Mr. Pickton as a source of DNA on important evidence were left out of his reports.

David O'Keefe, a forensic officer with the RCMP for more than 30 years, told the court that DNA profiles that matched one of Mr. Pickton's alleged victims, Ms. Joesbury, were found on several items discovered in Mr. Pickton's home. The list of items included a black nylon jacket, an address book, nail clippers, a page of an address book, a plastic bottle and a pillow slip.

DNA from a man was also found on the items, he said reading from his report on each item. But the information from the genetic markers was insufficient to make any meaningful comparisons, he said in response to questioning by prosecutor Derrill Prevett.

Defence counsel Marilyn Sandford pressed Mr. O'Keefe on how the scientists handled samples with limited DNA information. Although his report stated that no meaningful comparisons could be made, the data from the lab indicated that Mr. Pickton could be excluded as the source of the DNA, she suggested.

Mr. O'Keefe appeared reluctant to answer. He said he could not respond without looking at the data. Ms. Sandford asked him to check it. “These are important exhibits,” she said. He warned that it would take him some time.

Mr. O'Keefe subsequently confirmed that forensic analysis had excluded Mr. Pickton as a contributor to the DNA profiles found on the items.

Ms. Sandford pressed Mr. O'Keefe on why this was left out of his final report. Mr. O'Keefe said he suspected his report was done before the data were written up. “I cannot give you a good reason,” he said at one point during their testy exchange.

Mr. O'Keefe also told the court that the scientists have a bank of 1,200 DNA profiles for comparisons in the case. They do not go through the entire list to see how many people are excluded when working with a DNA sample that has limited information.

“You could certainly do it for the person who is on trial,” Ms. Sandford said, raising her voice.

In response to questions about the nail clippers, Mr. O'Keefe confirmed that the data showed that Mr. Pickton was excluded, and he did not do the comparison before he wrote his report. “I could have done that comparison [before now], I did not,” he said.

He also confirmed he had failed to report that Mr. Pickton was excluded as the source of DNA on a plastic bottle. He offered an explanation about why he did not include the results but then appeared to abandon it, apologizing for “being confusing about this.” Later, he offered another explanation that he prefaced as sounding “a bit strange.”

He also suggested that reporting someone was excluded was of limited value, but later agreed that it was meaningful to say Mr. Pickton was excluded.

Earlier, the jury heard that DNA profiles that matched some of the women Mr. Pickton is accused of killing were found on numerous items in his home on the property, in a workshop-garage and in the slaughterhouse.

The defence has repeatedly drawn attention to DNA profiles that match other people, including Mr. Pickton's brother Dave and two people who were arrested and released during the investigation, Pat Casanova and Dinah Taylor.

The jury heard that a DNA profile from a hair plucked from a blood-stained Hudson Bay blanket matched the profile of Robert Pickton.

Court also heard that police investigated a rumour that Dave Pickton had killed prostitutes, but discovered that the person said to have made the allegation denied saying so, the jury at the sensational murder trial heard yesterday.

During aggressive questioning by defence lawyer Peter Ritchie, RCMP Sergeant Daniel Almas repeatedly told the court that police never uncovered any direct link between Dave Pickton and murder, despite an intensive investigation. Sgt. Almas said he never considered Dave Pickton a suspect in the murder of skid row prostitutes.

However, Dave Pickton was involved in several incidents that made him a person of interest warranting further investigation, Sgt. Almas said. “I have no information he was involved in murder. But as an investigator, I remain open to all possibilities,” he said.

Police files state that DNA of a woman who may be alive or dead was found on sex paraphernalia in Dave Pickton's bedroom and in a freezer in a slaughterhouse on the Port Coquitlam pig farm; that Dave was reported to have brought prostitutes to the farm, and that Dave was known to have a disdain for women, Sgt. Almas confirmed.

Dave Pickton was convicted of sexual assault around 1993 and was accused of violent sexual assault in 1999, he also said.

Police did not pursue their investigation of the sexual assault allegation in 1999 after the woman refused to testify in court. But she had told police the assault took place in Dave Pickton's bedroom. Each of her limbs had been tied to a corner of the bed with a bungie cord and pills had been shoved into her mouth, the court heard.

Police subsequently found pills and restraint devices as described by the woman in Dave Pickton's bedroom, Sgt. Almas confirmed.

However, the allegation did not turn Dave Pickton into a suspect in the missing-women case, Sgt. Almas said. “If [the allegation is] true, it warrants investigation,” he said. But that is not enough to make Dave Pickton a suspect in the missing-women case, he added. “A serious sexual assault does not a murderer make,” the police officer said.

Sgt. Almas also told the court that Dave Pickton, in a conversation with police, suggested that others were involved in the murders of the missing women but he did not say more. Police did not know if he had any “real information,” Sgt. Almas said.

Sgt. Almas said “a witness” had told police about a rumour based on information from a third party that Dave Pickton was responsible for killing prostitutes. Police tracked down the person, who denied saying any such thing, he told the court.

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