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Courts Gag Media at Sensational Canada Trial : Justice: The facts in the murder, kidnaping and assault case will eventually come out. Citizens rely on U.S. TV, smuggled papers.

May 15, 1994|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. CATHARINES, Canada — Even on a continent numbed by the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer and Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, the story unfolding at the trial here of Paul Bernardo, a boyish, 29-year-old bookkeeper, is striking in its depravity.

To begin with, there was his alleged accomplice, then-wife Karla Homolka, 23, who prosecutors say assisted Bernardo in kidnaping, molesting and killing teen-age girls. In a controversial plea bargain struck last summer, Homolka was convicted of two counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years in prison. She could be out on parole in as little as four years.

Now she is expected to be the crucial prosecution witness against her ex-husband. Bernardo has pleaded not guilty to nine counts, including murder, sexual assault and kidnaping.

Then there is the mysterious death of Homolka's 15-year-old sister, Tammy, on Christmas Eve, 1990. Authorities initially wrote it off as an accident but exhumed the body for re-examination after Bernardo's 1993 arrest. After more than a year of silence about what they found, prosecutors last Tuesday charged Bernardo with manslaughter and aggravated sexual assault in Tammy's death.

But what may be most startling about this case, at least to Americans, is the secrecy enshrouding it.

For nearly a year, Canadian reporters have been prohibited from reporting all that they know--including the details of Homolka's confession and what authorities now believe really happened to Tammy.

The courts have enforced the publication ban under Canadian laws protecting an accused's right to a jury untainted by pretrial publicity.

While the ban--or, more properly, delay, because the material will be made public at some point--is far from unprecedented here, it has stirred debate and even defiance. And it has heightened public interest in the case even more.

Prosecutors have been accused of using the prohibition to screen themselves from criticism over their deal with Homolka.

The proximity of St. Catharines to the United States--it is just a few miles from Niagara Falls, N.Y.--has complicated the issue.

The U.S. media have reported far more complete accounts of the evidence than have been published here. And while U.S. newspapers and broadcasts are beyond the reach of Canadian courts, in an era of satellite television, computer modems and fax machines they are well within the grasp of Canadians. Some U.S. reports have leaked north, illustrating how hard it can be for Canada to protect its laws and traditions from U.S. encroachment.

The order has also divided Canadian journalists, who for the most part have observed the ban but disagree on its merits.

A group of Toronto newspapers and the Canadian Broadcasting Co. have appealed the order and await a ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeals.

"Our main argument is that when you're talking about prejudicing a jury, you need to balance that with the public's right to know about what happened at her trial," said Toronto attorney Peter Jacobsen, who represented Thomson Newspapers before the appeals court. "Jurors can perform their tasks no matter what they've seen or heard beforehand, as the courts say they do in other circumstances."

Michael Mandel, a law professor at York University in Toronto, said bans "take jurors for such morons that they can't tell the difference between evidence heard at trial and what appears in the newspaper."

But Catherine Ford, associate editor of the Calgary Herald, believes along with many other Canadian journalists that publication bans are acceptable in some cases.

"There's a hierarchy of rights, and the right of the accused to a fair trial has to come first over the public's right to know every detail of what happened whenever they want to hear it," she said.

*

Nicknamed "The Ken and Barbie Killers" by the tabloids for their blond good looks, Bernardo and Homolka met while she was still in high school in this city of 120,000 on Lake Ontario. He was an accountant trainee in suburban Toronto, where women at the time were being terrorized by a serial rapist.

The couple were married June 29, 1991, and the ceremony was dedicated to the memory of Tammy. On the same day, the dismembered body of 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy, encased in concrete, was pulled from a reservoir south of town. It was later determined that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

Ten months later, 15-year-old Kristen French was abducted while walking home from school. Her body was discovered in a ditch two weeks later.

Police concluded that she had been held captive and sexually assaulted until shortly before her body was dumped.

Detectives from several jurisdictions joined in a hunt for the killer or killers.

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