NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. In a startling development on the seventh day of jury deliberations, the judge at the Robert Pickton first-degree murder trial admitted he made an error and reworded his instructions to the jury.
As the 12 jurors returned to the courtroom, Mr. Pickton looked at the floor, at the judge, at his lawyers, at anyone but the jurors.
Similarly, none of the jurors looked at Mr. Pickton. They watched closely as Mr. Justice James Williams, reading from prepared remarks, expressed regret for his mistake.
Judge Williams said he had not been sufficiently precise. "I regret I misinformed you. It was inadvertent. It is important you be instructed as properly as I am able," he said.
The judge's remarks followed a question from the jurors earlier in the day, their first since deliberations began a week ago. They asked whether they could say Mr. Pickton was the killer of one or more women whose remains were found on his farm if they inferred he acted indirectly.
Shortly after he replied to the question, however, Judge Williams ordered the jurors to halt deliberations. The rare disruption lasted nearly three hours.
Last week, Judge Williams had told the jury they would have to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Pickton shot Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson or Angela Joesbury, all of whom died from gunshots to the head.
If they had reasonable doubt that Mr. Pickton killed the women, then they would have to find him not guilty.
But Thursday afternoon, Judge Williams modified that, saying the jury could convict Mr. Pickton if they find that Crown prosecutors have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Pickton shot the women "or was otherwise an active participant" in the killings. The revised wording meant that the jury would not be required to find that Mr. Pickton actually pulled the trigger.
Crown prosecutors and defence lawyers declined to comment on the new developments after they left the courtroom. However, families of some of the women that Mr. Pickton is accused of murdering said in interviews that they were okay with the events in court.
Family members watched the proceedings on closed-circuit television in an adjoining room and did not come into the courtroom. Rick Frey, the father of Marnie Frey, said he was feeling optimistic. "I think this is good," he said in a brief interview afterward.
"We want a fair trial," he said, adding that he was pleased the jurors are ensuring that they clearly understand what they have to do. "That's all we ask for," Mr. Frey said. "That's the way it has to be."
Cynthia Cardinal, the older sister of Georgina Papin, also said she is not worried. "It's good to know the jury is looking at everything closely," she said.
Mr. Pickton, 58, 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 judge's clarification and admission of an error capped several hours of confusion. The significance of the jury's question was not immediately clear.
The jury was stuck on the third of five elements that the judge had said it must consider for each murder.
The five elements are that the individual named in the murder count was killed by an unlawful act; that the victim was killed at the time and place stated in the indictment; that Mr. Pickton was the individual who killed this person; that he meant to cause her death and that the murder was planned and deliberate.
When jurors filed in to the courtroom in the morning, Judge Williams had reread relevant portions of his previous charge to them. He repeated that it was not necessary for them to find that the accused acted alone 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, when explaining the law in the context of the evidence heard during the trial, Judge Williams said if jurors concluded that Mr. Pickton was "merely present" at the murders or "took a minor role," they must find him not guilty.
Mr. Pickton was on trial for the murder of Ms. Abotsway, Ms. Joesbury, Ms. Wilson, Ms. Papin, Brenda Wolfe and Ms. Frey. Their partial remains were discovered on Mr. Pickton's rural property in 2002. He is also charged with the murder of 20 more women. A date for a second trial is slated to be set on Jan. 17.