For nearly a year Canadians watched and listened, sometimes in horror, as a court heard graphic testimony from the first-degree murder trial of Robert Pickton in New Westminster, B.C.
On Sunday the jury announced it had found Mr. Pickton guilty of six counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of six drug-addicted prostitutes who disappeared between August, 1997, and December, 2001, from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Veteran reporter Robert Matas has covered the trial for The Globe and Mail from the jury selection in December 2006, to its beginnings in January 2007 and the verdict this past weekend. He listened as one witness after another described detailed lists of DNA evidence, graphic accounts of human remains found in various buildings and stories of the comings and goings on the Pickton property.
Although Mr. Matas can't respond to specifics about the legal arguments, or speculate on the jury's motives behind its decision, or Mr. Pickton's guilt or innocence, we are happy he has agreed to take questions from readers about other aspects of the trial. How tight was security at the courthouse? What did Mr. Pickton do each day in the courtroom? Were victim's families on hand the entire time? What about international media?
Send your questions now, and return on Thursday after 4 p.m. EST to read Mr. Matas' replies. plus follow the breaking news for the next two days including victim impact statements and the sentencing of Robert Pickton.
Robert Matas has been with The Globe since 1980 and has worked from its Vancouver bureau since 1988. He also covered the massive Air India trial.
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Christine Diemert, globeandmail.com: Thanks Robert, for taking some time out to answer questions for our readers. Restrictions imposed by the court do not allow us to talk about anything that the jury did not hear and we won't speculate on the reasons behind the sentencing or the verdict in the Robert Pickton case, however, that still leaves us with a lot we can discuss.
I'd start by asking about covering such a long, detailed and often troubling proceeding. How is it possible to return day after day when you know what some of the testimony will include?
Robert Matas: The courtroom was a highly emotionally charged environment. The 12-member jury and gaggle of lawyers were exposed to the most graphic evidence. They were required to look closely at photographs of remains found on the property in order to see what had been done and to compare marks on bones. However, the public, including the media was not allowed to see the photographs.
Of course, it was dramatic enough without firsthand knowledge, just listening to witnesses and lawyers talking about the horrific evidence. The challenge as a journalist is to convey the horror to the readers in an effort to enable those who are not in the courtroom to know what is going on.
Christine Diemert writes: Was it difficult to remain neutral while listening to witnesses and watching Mr. Pickton week after week?
Robert Matas: I have my opinions. But as a reporter, I try to be fair and balanced, without giving undue weight to my perspective.
Christine Diemert: What type of relationship did the media have with the families, the lawyers and the police?
Robert Matas: Several family members resented the media. They were upset by what was reported in the media about their family. Who wouldn't be? Other families appreciated the impact that the media could have and were prepared to have their comments reported. Almost all media took its lead from the families and backed away from those who were resentful of the intrusions.
The lawyers occasionally spoke to media. The prosecutors had a lawyer who was their official spokesperson, Stan Lowe. The defence team spokesman was lead lawyer Peter Ritchie. Neither made extensive comments during the trial, leaving their statements for the court.
Police from the Missing Women Task Force rarely spoke to reporters.
Sir Laifalot from Canada writes: It seems very clear to me that Pickton didn't act alone, couldn't have done all that he did over such a long period of time without some sort of help from a third party, why did the police not pursue this further? ... Whatever happened to the remains that were not discovered, did anyone check the sale of pigs & trace it down?
Robert Matas: The defence team raised questions about the role of Mr. Pickton's brother Dave, his close friend Dinah Taylor and his business associate Pat Casanova. The police conducted an unprecedented forensic investigation into the Pickton property in their search for evidence. Don Adam, head of the Missing Women Task Force, said police found no evidence to link Dave Pickton, Ms. Taylor or Mr. Casanova to the crimes.
Isabelle W from Canada writes: Hi Robert, Do you think that the jury had trouble listening to several details of the trial ? Specifically, did you see any of them look upset or disturbed by some of the details or did they not show their reactions? Thanks.
Robert Matas: On a day of the most graphic evidence, the judge called a time-out to allow some of the jurors to regain their composure. Some left the jury box with tears in their eyes. However they returned about half-hour later, ready to resume. Otherwise, the jury members carried on with their duties, rarely showing what toll the evidence was taking on them.
Bernard Bomer from Vancouver Canada writes: Dear Mr Matas, ... How easy it would be to provide a safe working environment for sex-workers in a protected environment. When? And why not?
Robert Matas: A trial is not an inquiry into prostitution, although the raw life of the street was exposed with unusual clarity during testimony by numerous prostitutes. Based on the testimony heard in court, the core of the problem is drug addiction and not prostitution. Several women who came to court said they sold sex to pay for drugs. They left the impression they would not work as prostitutes if they did not have an addiction. Dealing with drugs may be the most effective way to deal with prostitution.
Carolyn Bongiorno from Glenham, NY United States writes: I would have preferred that the victims be called drug addicted 'women', not just dismissed in death as prostitutes. They were women who worked as prostitutes. A little dignity and compassion here, SVP.
Catalina Nina from Canada writes: I find it interesting but deplorable that in a short description of a murderer's sentencing, the editors consider relevant to include details about the murdered women, i.e. drug-addicted prostitutes, as if that made the murders somewhat less serious.
Robert Matas: The reference to women as drug-addicted prostitutes is essential for an appreciation of what Mr. Pickton was doing. His actions were beyond comprehension. But it is important to realize that these women were easy targets for Mr. Pickton in part because they were prostitutes who sold their bodies from street corners and they were drug addicts. Some media refer to the women as sex trade workers. That is a concocted phrase that tries to hide what the women do.
Linda J. from North Vancouver Canada writes: Q. for Robert Matas - Please clarify... The judge determined no parole for the maximum 25 years, but do the years he has already spent in custody account for any of the time he will spend? And what happens after the 25 years? Will he be released as having 'served the time for his crime' as Karla Homolka was, and resume walking and living among us, with no reporting requirements of any kind? I have read dozens of articles since the decision by the jury, and have not seen these questions addressed.
Robert Matas: Mr. Pickton was arrested on Feb 22, 2002. He was sentenced on Sunday to life in prison with eligibility for full parole after 25 years. The 25-year period begins from the time of his arrest. He does not receive double time for the time served before he was convicted. The time is considered straight time.
Mr. Pickton, who is 58 now, is under the jurisdiction of Corrections Canada for the rest of his life. At best, he could apply for parole, which is a form of released under supervised conditions.
However the court imposed the maximum penalty provided under the Criminal Code for second-degree murder. Mr. Pickton will be eligible to apply for full parole 25 years after he was arrested on Feb. 22, 2002, that is in February 2027. He can apply for day parole in 2024.
Those who comment on events 25 years from now say that it is highly unlikely that a parole board would ever approve any type of parole for Mr. Pickton. Of course it is impossible to say what a parole board will do in 2032. Mr. Pickton may also be taken out of prison for a medical emergency. The National Parole Board has discretionary power to provide a temporary release on humanitarian grounds to attend a funeral in the family.
Christine Diemert writes: This trial was also a media marathon. In the early days it attracted a lot of international press, but that seemed to slow down after a few days only to ramp up again in the final week. Can you describe what it was like logistically to cover this trial? And how many reporters were there from beginning to end?
Robert Matas: The public gallery had a section of seats set aside for the media. In order to claim one of the seats, representatives of a media outlet had to register with the court services office, provide information for a security check and submit forms from our employer. Once registered, we had to go each morning before entering the courthouse to a media room, about a block away, and sign in on two forms. An armed sheriff would give us a colour-coded pass after we signed in. Each day, we needed a new pass.
At the courthouse, a security gate similar to an airport security gate was set up at the door. In addition to looking through everything in your pockets, the armed sheriffs monitored the beeps on the metal detector as we stepped through. A sheriff would then pass a wand over you in order to pick up anything missed by the metal detector.
Once we were in the building, we could line up again for a secondary security check to enter the courtroom. The second security check was similar to the security check at the door, with one exception. The armed sheriffs ensured that nothing larger than a large notebook was taken into the courtroom. We could not take in computers, although we were allowed to have tape recorders and Blackberries.
Once we got this far, there was only one more step. We were kept in a vestibule outside the courtroom until the lawyers had entered. Then we had to show the passes we received from the media room to another armed sheriff. Finally, we could take a seat and prepare to do our job.
The process was even more convoluted for reporters who did not attend court regularly. On many days during the early months of the trial and in the final days, the courtroom did not have enough seats for all the media that showed up. Several media outlets had a guarantee of a seat in the courtroom. But many did not. Those who had a seat were required to pick up their passes at least half-an-hour before court began. If a pass was not picked up in the media room, the seat would be available to other media.
Sometimes, even that would not be enough to accommodate all those from the news media who wanted to cover the trial. Reporters who did not receive a pass had a few other options. They could watch the testimony on video terminals set up in the media room. Alternately, they could go to an "overflow" courtroom adjacent to the Pickton court. The overflow courtroom was often used by court watchers, family and friends of the victims.
More than 300 media representatives - reporters, photographers, TV producers etc. registered to cover the trial before it started. The media seats were filled at the beginning of the trial and in the final days. During weeks in the middle, only four or five reporters showed up.
Christine Diemert: Thanks Robert for answering the questions today.
Robert Matas: Thanks for asking.