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Court atmosphere turns icy for families

Authorities have banned board games, puzzles and knitting needles for victims' relatives awaiting verdict

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. — As rain began pelting down outside and the wind picked up, conditions changed inside the courthouse as well here yesterday for nearly two dozen family members waiting tensely for a verdict in the Robert Pickton trial.

What had been a warm, convivial, weekend atmosphere turned icy when authorities refused to allow in knitting needles, crochet hooks, board games and even, according to the families, thick blankets as the courts reopened for general business in the morning.

"No knitting, no blankets, no nothing," one relative said unhappily, as she sat nervously with nothing to do but chat to take her mind off what was taking place in the nearby jury room.

Seven male and five female jurors are into their fourth full day of deliberations on the fate of Mr. Pickton, after his exhaustive, complex and often disturbing trial on six counts of first-degree murder. The cases are connected to the scores of women missing from the tough Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

A second trial is planned on 20 additional murder charges laid against the 58-year-old suburban pig farmer.

On Saturday and Sunday, friends and surviving family members of the 26 women helped ease their nerves with knitting klatches, Scrabble contests and completion of a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. To keep warm in the chilly courthouse corridors, they draped heavy blankets over their laps.

These comforts disappeared, however, as sheriffs began to take a tougher line on what was permitted. Relatives were frustrated by the change.

"Why can't us old ladies bring in some knitting to help us calm down? It's not easy sitting here waiting. It's hard," said Lynn Frey, stepmother of Marnie Frey, whose jawbone was found on Mr. Pickton's property. "We've already gone through enough. We lost our loved ones."

She scorned the ban on games and jigsaws. "I guess it doesn't look very good to see some family members bent over making a puzzle."

Lilliane Beaudoin, sister of victim Diane Rock, said it gets cold in the courthouse at night waiting out the jury, which has been meeting until 8 p.m. before retiring. "What is wrong with our sitting there with blankets wrapped around us? We are the families here. We're waiting for the verdict."

Court services spokesman Tom Collins said he doesn't know why those waiting felt that blankets were banned.

"If they feel they need to bring blankets in, they can do that," he told a surprisingly large number of reporters hungry for news as the Pickton jury watch drags on.

A representative of Victim Services, the provincial agency tending to the families' needs, agreed with Mr. Collins. Susanne Dahlin said she has no idea why relatives of the missing women thought they couldn't have blankets. They just need to ask.

However, Mr. Collins said the bans on board games, puzzles and other objects were imposed to maintain courthouse security and decorum.

"I certainly understand where the families are coming from, but for us, it's business as usual. We're here to run a normal, day-to-day business."

He said rules were relaxed during the weekend because the Pickton case was the only matter going on at the New Westminster courthouse.

Even without their blankets and knitting, the diverse group of women, plus a few men, are a compelling group, brought together by the horror and tragedy of the so-called pig farm murders.

Occupying all available seats in the public lobby and hallways of the courthouse, they converse with the familiarity of long-time friends.

The three spirited sisters of murder victim Georgina Papin appeared to be having a particularly high old time yesterday.

As they sat by themselves in a corner, they talked non-stop, often erupting into gales of laughter.

But all say that is just a cover for the deep unease they feel inside about the fateful finding on Mr. Pickton's guilt or innocence on the charges.

"I don't know if we're getting enough sleep. We're really nervous," admitted Elana Papin, who works as a roofer in Edmonton.

Cynthia Cardinal, Georgina's older sister, said she has been on an emotional roller coaster since the trial began last January. "I have a good feeling it will work out. ... [but I'm still] really anxious."

Ms. Cardinal's emotions have been rubbed raw by the trial.

As she sat in during closing arguments, she heard details for the first time of a witness's testimony that she saw Mr. Pickton in the process of butchering a woman in a slaughterhouse on his property.

At one point, the witness identified the victim as Georgina Papin, but subsequently backed away from saying who it was. The mere mention of her sister, however, was traumatic for Ms. Cardinal.

"I got violently sick. I kept seeing her ... and blood. It stayed with me all day. I could not eat. I cried a lot," she said.

With reports from Robert Matas and The Canadian Press

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