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The grisly work of defending a serial killer

For almost six years, a team of lawyers represented Robert Pickton without a quiver of ambiguity in their voices

Globe and Mail Update

VANCOUVER — Peter Ritchie received unnerving hate calls when he began acting as defence counsel for Robert Pickton. He also received calls from lawyers who wanted to join the defence team.

A Vancouver lawyer with more than 30 years experience, Mr. Ritchie was acutely aware of the grisly nature of the sensational murder charges against his client and the power of crime to attract and repulse.

One of his first tasks as Mr. Pickton's lawyer, he said in a recent interview, was to figure out who should be part of a team defending a man accused of some of the most heinous murders ever committed in Canada.

Mr. Ritchie said he paid special attention to whether lawyers who were interested in joining the team were capable of processing information about the crimes. "We'd talk about that. Some could and some could not do it," he said.

Lawyers who do criminal cases routinely see some pretty nasty scenes. But the ghastly component can have an impact on even the most experienced mind, Mr. Ritchie said. "You just have to be clinical about it," he said.

The lawyers did not turn to counsellors to put their minds at rest. As a team, they tried to deal with the atrocities "as best we could," Mr. Ritchie said. "We had open discussions about the potential impacts and tried to be sensible about it, without pretending it was not there."

For almost six years, Mr. Ritchie and the team of lawyers defended Mr. Pickton without a quiver of ambiguity in their voices. Mr. Ritchie did not give details of the hate calls he said he received after taking the case.

Shortly before the verdict was delivered, Mr. Ritchie and defence lawyer Adrian Brooks spoke in separate interviews about the hurdles in defending someone accused of multiple murders and the impact of dealing with the monstrous evidence.

Mr. Brooks, a Victoria lawyer with more than 20 years experience, frankly admitted he could not picture how the monstrosities occurred. "I guess I have a poor imagination," he said.

"As a defence lawyer," Mr. Brooks added, "you have to compartmentalize. You have to say, okay, that's part of this case, and then try to put it aside and do your job. Or you cannot do your job."

Mr. Brooks was bothered as much by the misery he would see in the faces of the victims' families. "Every day is longer for them," he said. "I would see it every day, looking out into the public gallery and see those people who lost their loved ones. And it is difficult."

Mr. Brooks joined the defence team in the fall of 2002, assuming the case would take two or three years. He realized he was wrong in late 2003, when the defence team was still receiving disclosure of forensic results from the Pickton farm. But by then, he was too deeply involved to walk away.

Mr. Brooks also misjudged the nature of the trial. The case was unique, he said. "It is factually as complicated a case as I have ever seen. Murder cases, drug conspiracy cases, I have never seen a case that had so many factual twists and turns," he said. "In just about every area of evidence that Crown [prosecution] could use to point to Mr. Pickton, we could find an interpretation or another aspect of evidence that pointed in a different direction."

In one instance, the prosecution team indicated outside court that the east wall of the slaughterhouse was absolutely crucial to their case. They had found an earring belonging to Andrea Joesbury, one of the murdered women, near the wall, and four or five ways to link Mr. Pickton to the location.

But then the defence team drew attention to the DNA profiles of Mr. Pickton's business associate Pat Casanova, which were also all over the area. Mr. Casanova's link appeared to be stronger than Mr. Pickton's ties to the area.

Mr. Brooks recalled hearing several times from the prosecution that the east wall was crucial to their case. They never let go completely, but gradually they shifted emphasis, Mr. Brooks said. The case required lawyers "to actually change their point of views in midstream," he said.

Asked about the biggest challenge in the defence case, Mr. Brooks talked about figuring out the highly scientific DNA evidence. "Beneath the calm exterior, we were scrambling a lot with the presentation of forensic results," he said. "We had a very difficult time in getting that together."

The defence strategy was to draw attention to DNA profiles that placed Dinah Taylor on the Pickton property. "Making sure we found all the DNA results and getting [those results] into evidence was a huge challenge for us," he said. "We wanted to show this for as complicated a case as it was. The Crown [prosecutors] wanted to make it simple and as monochromatic as they could because that helped them get to where they wanted to go. But we never thought that accurately represented these properties."

Mr. Pickton's statements during an interrogation after his arrest were central to the prosecution case. Mr. Brooks said the defence team thought through its response to Mr. Pickton's statements fairly early in the process, deciding that Mr. Pickton's intelligence was an issue. Mr. Brooks sat through the videotape of the lengthy statements seven times. Each time he saw new aspects that made it more enigmatic.

Despite the grisly murders, Mr. Brooks expressed no regret about defending Mr. Pickton. "My job is to present evidence on behalf of Mr. Pickton in the best way possible, so everything that could be said on his behalf is said. That's my job," he said. "Once I fulfill that job, then it is the jury's responsibility to decide."

The defence team was a mixture of lawyers who worked full time on the file and lawyers brought in for specific portions. More than 15 lawyers were in court at one time or another.

Mr. Ritchie's criteria for membership on the team included high academic capabilities with expertise in a specialized area, high standards and demonstrable perseverance. The team has members who clerked for judges and others who studied mathematics and science before taking law.

Mr. Ritchie said his biggest challenge was ensuring the defence team was properly informed of the case against Mr. Pickton and figuring out how to organize the flood of material disclosed by the prosecution.

The police investigation was continuing while the court process was moving ahead. Mr. Ritchie said the case kept changing and the defence had difficulties on what the trial was going to be like.

But once Mr. Pickton was sentenced to life in prison without parole for 25 years for the murder of six women, Mr. Ritchie acknowledged that he had anticipated the results.

"I do not think it was a big surprise to anyone. For a case like this, no one is surprised," he told reporters.

"But lawyers try to do their best," he added as he stepped away.

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