Three men accused in the murder of Wesley Hallam were back in court today as their defence counsel presented pre-trial applications before Justice I.S. McMillan.
Eric Mearow, Ronald Mitchell and Dylan Jocko –all arrested in 2011 and charged with murder and indignity to a dead body, appeared today sporting ‘new and fresh’ looks. Both Jocko –wearing a black hip hop Legends t-shirt, and Mitchell –wearing a blue button up shirt, were sporting short mohawks and goatees. Mearow arrived wearing a black hoodie, with his shoulder length hair slicked back and presenting a full beard.
The victim’s decapitated and dismembered body was discovered in a deep ridge, close to Cold Water Creek, along Landslide Road on January 11th, 2011. In March 2011, Sault Ste. Marie Police concluded their search of a garbage dump in Dafter Michigan, just south of the Sault Michigan/ Sault Ontario border. Parts of Wesley’s dismembered body were recovered at that site.
The courtroom was relatively empty with only two people from the community present and somewhat beefed up with 6 police offers from Sault Ste. Marie’s tactical unit –Emergency Services Unit, in place. Sandra and Shannon Hallam, mother and sister of Wesley respectively, were both unusually absent.
Throughout today’s hearing Justice McMillan was noticeably irritable with the defence, at one point pounding his fist upon the judge’s bench and issuing stern reproach.
A publication ban prohibits the reporting of any evidence procured during the preliminary hearing of Mearow, Mitchell and Jocko as well as hearings associated with the outcome of the preliminary hearing.
After four and a half years of legal proceedings and what could be the longest running preliminary hearing in a murder case in Canadian history, taxpayers must be mystified about what is actually going on inside the courtroom. You have to be there to believe it for yourself- and you can be. The pre-trial is open to the public but don’t you dare breathe a word about what you hear in the courtroom on your favourite social media platform. Yes- those publication bans don’t just apply to journalists and reporters, they apply to you avid tweeters and couch warriors yapping off on Facebook too.
Publication bans can serve an important role in the judicial process. Bans prevent the identification of minors and officers involved in undercover operations or witnesses whose lives could be threatened if exposed to the public. Bans are often imposed to ensure an accused’s right to a fair trial.
There is equal value in the media’s freedom of speech and the public’s right to accessible information about the legal system. While courtroom proceedings are open to the public the reality is that members of the media are relied upon, and expected by the public, to watchdog and report back about the judicial process.
The fact that publication bans are handed out in the courts with what seems to be at the same level of frequency that a kindergarten teacher slaps a gold star on students colouring assignments, not only challenges media from performing their job but slides an excluding shield across the public’s view of the judicial landscape.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom guarantee the rights of citizens to a justifiable legal rationale. In the courtroom the Charter collides at the intersection of Section 11(d) – the right to a fair trial, Section 7- the right to life, liberty and security, and Section 2(b) – the right to freedom of expression.
Section 11(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedom states that everyone has the right ‘to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal. Section 7 of the Charter states ‘everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justices.’
In protecting the fundamental right of an accused to a fair trial, the court may impose a publication ban on any legal proceeding that brings forward evidence, prior criminal record or any other information that could cause prejudice among jury members.
With the roaring arrival of rapid change technology in households around the globe over the most recent decade, these publication bans do not apply to journalists and reporters alone but also to every day citizens who disclose information from the courtroom on social media platforms such as Facebook.
Section 2(b) of the Charter states that an individual has the right to ‘freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media communication’. And herein lays the crux of the ultimate power struggle between the courts and the media and at the heart of it is the public’s right to access to information.
Both the courts and the media play vital roles in ensuring that Canadian law is upheld. The courts enforce the law and the media illuminates the judicial process. Over the course of ensuring the right to a fair trial, a publication ban gags and binds the media and slaps a thick black blindfold across the collective public eye.
There is nowhere in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that state’s an accused has the right to a trial by an uninformed jury.
In his article to the Star Phoenix news, entitled Publication Ban Crime Against Democracy, Les MacPherson states, “Canadian judges seem to think that jurors are too stupid to distinguish between sworn testimony heard in the courtroom and what they might have read in a newspaper or seen on television. It is not a view that generates any confidence in our justice system. If juries really are that stupid, we might as well scrap the whole idea of jury trials and leave distinctions of guilt or innocence to our betters on the bench.”
Transparent reporting of the judicial process increases the public’s trust and confidence in the law. As well the public’s informed consideration of court cases increases the likelihood of a fair trial. A direct lens upon the judicial process also creates opportunities for the public to be enlightened about determinants of crime in their community and to develop timely strategies in addressing those issues.
Pre-trail applications resume tomorrow at 10 a.m. in the Sault Ste. Marie Courthouse.