NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. The long legal proceedings against Robert Pickton took a dramatic turn Thursday as Judge James Williams advised jurors he had made an error in his charge to them last week.
He said that he had not been "sufficiently precise" when he instructed them on what the Crown needed to prove to determine Mr. Pickton's guilt on the murders of three of the six women he is charged with killing.
Judge Williams told jurors that they should substitute his clarification of the matter.
While the judge contemplated the issue which arose after the jurors had posed a question to him earlier in the day, jury deliberations were suspended for nearly four hours.
The issue was whether Mr. Pickton had to actually pull the trigger to be found guilty of killing Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson or Angela Joesbury, all of whom died from gunshots to the head.
The judge intimated that the Crown could also have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Pickton was "an active participant" in the killings in order to convict him.
Last Friday, he had said that the issue for the jury to decide was whether Mr. Pickton had actually shot the women.
But Thursday afternoon, dealing with Ms. Abotsway, he said: "If you find that Mr. Pickton shot Ms. Abotsway or was otherwise an active participant in her killing, you should find that the Crown has proved this element. On the other hand, if you have a reasonable doubt about his being an active participant in her killing you must return a verdict of not guilty on the charge of murdering her."
The judge's clarification and admission of an error capped several hours of confusion, as observers wondered how significant the rare and unexpected suspension of the juror's already long deliberations would be.
After Judge Williams told jurors that his mistake was "inadvertent," they left to resume their meetings to decide Mr. Pickton's fate.
The question put to the judge this morning had been the first word from the seven men and five women deciding Mr. Pickton's fate since the conclusion of the marathon, complex trial last Friday afternoon.
Mr. Pickton, a 58-year-old suburban pig farmer, is charged with killing six women who went missing from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver during the years 1997 to 2001.
His trial lasted more than 10 months, with jurors hearing evidence from 128 witnesses, thorough closing arguments from both sides and a lengthy charge from the judge.
The question put by the jury was: "When considering Element 3 (whether Mr. Pickton was the killer of the six women whose remains were found on his farm) are we able to say 'yes', if we infer that the accused acted indirectly?"
The jury was not present when the judge read the question to the re-assembled courtroom.
The significance of the question was not immediately clear, as lawyers were given time to ponder it, before advising the judge of their thoughts on the matter.
However, it could mean that jurors are having trouble deciding how responsible Mr. Pickton was for the actual six murders with which he was charged.
The use of the term "element three" refers to the five elements Judge Williams said they must decide in the sensational case.
The five elements are: 1. That the individual named in the murder count was killed by an unlawful act.
2. That the victim was killed at the time and place stated in the indictment.
3. That Mr. Pickton was the individual who killed these person.
4. That he meant to cause her death.
5. That the murder was planned and deliberate.
The same elements were posed for all six murders Mr. Pickton is charged with.
When jurors filed in to the courtroom and took their seats about 11.15 a.m. PST, Judge Williams re-read relevant portions of his charge to them last week that he hoped would bring "clarity" to their deliberations.
He told them that it was not necessary for them to find that the accused acted alone in order to find him guilty. Mr. Pickton would still be guilty if the jury found he acted in concert with someone else or others, even if their identity was unknown.
However, Judge Williams continued, if jurors concluded that Mr. Pickton was "merely present" at the murders or "took a minor role" in them, that was not sufficient prove of his guilt.
The judge also suggested that if jurors found, for instance, that Mr. Pickton did not fire the gun that killed one of the victims, Sereena Abotsway, he must be acquitted.
The jury resumed its deliberations at 11.30 a.m.
In the lobby outside the courtroom, victim service workers sat down with family members as soon as the jury left.
Lynn Frey, stepmother of a woman Mr. Pickton is accused of killing, said she was confused by what was going on and what it could mean for the verdict.
About 25 family members and friends of the women that Mr. Pickton is accused of killing have been spending the days camping out in the courthouse lobby, waiting tensely to hear the verdict.
Mr. Pickton, was on trial for the murder of Sereena Abotsway, Andrea Joesbury, Mona Wilson, Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe and Marine Frey.
Their partial remains were discovered on Mr. Pickton's rural property in 2002.
Mr. Pickton is also charged with the murder of 20 more women. A date for a second trial is slated to be set on Jan. 17.