Three men to stand trial for first degree murder and being a party to indignity to human remains were present in court today as their Counsel went through pre-trial motions presented before Justice I.S. McMillan.
Charges were first laid against Ron Mitchell, Eric Mearow and Dylan Jocko in 2011. The victim’s, Wesley Hallam, decapitated and dismembered body was discovered in a deep ridge along Landslide Road on January 11th, 2011. It has been determined that Hallam was murdered January 7or 8th, 2011 during a house party at 30 Wellington St. East. The three co-accused have remained in custody since their arrests over four years ago.
A couple of family members for two of the accused were present in the courtroom today as was Wesley Hallam’s mother, Sandra Hallam. The preliminary hearing began in the fall of 2012 and concluded in August 2014. It is uncertain how long pre-trial hearings will run and a trial date has yet to be set.
Kelly Weeks is the Crown Attorney prosecuting this case. Anik Morrow, representing Ron Mitchell, hails from Toronto. She is not a newcomer to the Sault courts and has previously defended locally accused individuals. Ariel Herscovitch, an associate of Derstine Penman in Toronto, has been assisting Jennifer Penman, counsel for Eric Mearow, throughout the preliminary hearing. Bruce Willson, of Willson Carter in Sault Ste. Marie, is serving as defense for Dylan Jocko.
Over the course of the lengthy preliminary hearing and now in pre-trial, Ms. Morrow has proven herself to be impressively detailed in her presentations. It may appear to viewers in the gallery that Justice McMillan has grown exasperated at times with the thoroughness of her arguments. Justice McMillan’s complexion, normally of a pleasant rosy complexion, often rocketed through all of the 50 shades of pink, his cheeks flushing a brilliant magenta in the blink of an eye.
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.
The effect of the publication ban severely restricts reporters and journalists from informing the public in any real meaningful way. Beyond who showed up, fashion critiques, sharing observation of the ‘atmosphere’ in the courtroom as well as the fascinating dynamics between the Bench and Counsel there isn’t much that can be published without breaching the publication ban.
With access to myriad social media platforms, and especially Facebook, it isn’t just journalists and reporters that must be cognizant of the laws around publication bans. It is also the public- the public that for the most part do not attend court. Even in situations where members of the public are present in the courtroom, either because they are connected in some way to the court case or not, the details of a publication ban can be difficult to understand. Add to that the many years between a bail hearing and a trial, sometimes with a lengthy preliminary trial in between, publication bans impose an excruciatingly long time on those closest to the case who have to sit on their fingers and keep their mouth shut.
In January 2010 a facebook page was started to pay tribute to a toddler that was murdered. People posted pictures, messages and theories about how the child was killed. The postings breached a publication ban imposed by the courts, issued to protect the public identity of the victim and the accused. However, after the page became public knowledge the courts lifted the publication ban. The situation raised the point that the law is struggling to keep up with advances in technology.
Considering the hopelessness in controlling information shared across the magical World Wide Web, the incredible length of time to bring a trial to closure and the flood of rumors that are far more harmful than the truth, publication bans seem to do a better job of setting up the courts for contempt of court and mistrials.
It is interesting to note that Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario is a border town sharing an international bridge with Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
In a March 2005 ruling, Superior Court Justice John Gomery issued a publication ban in the messy corruption scandal best known as ‘Adscam’. The hearing took place in Montreal and alleged that former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his liberal party skimmed off funds intended to persuade Quebec separatists not to break away from Canada.
While the Canadian news outlets respected the ban American journalists and bloggers did not. Intrepid Canadians, including journalists, were forced to visit, and doing so in droves, American websites to find out what was happening in their own country.
Publication bans issued by Canadian courts are enforceable only against Canadian media outlets.
Professor Klaus Pohle is the Supervisor of Undergraduate Studies for the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He states that, “The internet complicates things but the law remains unchanged. Extra-territorial internet publication are just as culpable but the law can only be enforced in Canada, by that I mean the guilty party has to be physically in Canada to be prosecuted.”
There are many examples of American news sites keeping Canadian courtroom proceedings transparent to the Canadian public.
In 1993 American television networks thumbed their nose at a publication ban preventing the Canadian reporting of a murder trial in Ontario. In her article, The Blog and the Ban, Jane Kirtley writes of the trial, “American television networks defied a publication ban and reported details of a horrific murder trial in Ontario, Canadian cable operators blacked out the newscasts. Stories about the trial were deleted from editions of the Buffalo News slated for distribution in Canada, and Canadian customs officers confiscated copies of the American version at the border from people carrying more than one copy.”
Of course the horrific 1993 murder trial was that of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. The publication ban was imposed on Homolka’s preliminary hearing. Whereas Homolka’s lawyers were in favour of the ban Bernardo’s lawyers were not. Homolka had been portrayed as Bernardo’s victim and his lawyers were concerned that his trial would be prejudiced by the ban on Homolka’s hearing.
Many members of the media and public, and even members of the court, argue, that it is transparency in the courts and of police procedures that ensures an accused’s right to a fair trial.
A report prepared by the Canadian Judicial Council references a Supreme Court ruling where a request for a publication ban was struck down and where the court in their ruling stated that, “…the public must be free to scrutinize and debate the tactics used in apprehending suspected criminals. As well, the court found that openness benefits an accused person in two ways. First, it ensures the trial is conducted fairly. Secondly, media scrutiny enables the public to understand the basis for an acquittal, vindicating the accused while ensuring citizens are not left with the impression a suspect was freed on a technicality or without valid legal reason.”
Pre-trial applications resume tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the Sault Ste. Marie Courthouse.
(feature image: Sandra Hallam (left) and daughter, Shannon Hallam)