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Horrifying Canadian Murder Trial Nears End : Crime: Jury will soon get case of Paul Bernardo, who is accused in brutal rapes, slayings of two teen-agers.

August 26, 1995|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TORONTO — The double-murder trial that has shocked and mesmerized Canada in much the same way the O.J. Simpson trial has gripped the United States is nearing an end, after a horrifying three-month recounting of sexual terrorism and human depravity.

Jurors next week are expected to be handed the fate of Paul Bernardo, 30, a failed accountant accused in the kidnaping, confinement, sexual assaults and murders of Leslie Mahaffy, 14, and Kristen French, 15.

The most compelling evidence has been videotapes made by Bernardo and his former wife, Karla Homolka, his onetime partner in crime turned star witness for the prosecution.

Some of the tapes, shown to the jury, depict the six-foot, 180-pound Bernardo sexually assaulting and brutalizing the victims in the home he shared with Homolka in St. Catharines, Ontario, near Niagara Falls.

The tapes do not show the murders. Jurors are left with two versions of how the teen-agers died.

Homolka, 25, serving a 12-year sentence for manslaughter as part of a controversial plea bargain, testified in June that Bernardo kidnaped the girls off the street, sexually assaulted them while forcing her to participate, then strangled the youths with electrical cord while she watched.

Bernardo, in almost six days of testimony completed Tuesday, coolly admitted kidnaping the teens for sex, dismembering Leslie's body and disposing of the remains of both young women. But he maintained both victims were alone with Homolka when they died--Leslie in June, 1991, and Kristen in April, 1992.

Testimony has been so graphic that many Canadian newspapers print warnings of its gruesome nature at the beginning of each day's account of the trial.

The videotapes showing the two victims are visible only to the jury and court officials, but the soundtrack, including the teen's screams, has been heard in the courtroom.

The court rejected a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. request to televise the trial; court proceedings in Canada are not usually open to cameras. But almost 50 reporters and artists are assigned to daily coverage. Spectators often have slept overnight on the courthouse sidewalk to get one of the 118 seats available to the public each day.

But the horrific details of the crimes are only part of the reason for Canada's fascination with the case, moved here to avert problems with pretrial publicity in St. Catharines.

Just as the Simpson case has stirred debate about jury selection, spousal abuse, racism and the need for unanimous verdicts, the Bernardo trial raises questions about plea bargains, police bungling, judicial ethics and court secrecy. It also has highlighted public support for bringing back the death penalty, abolished in Canada in 1976.

The questions began almost as soon as Homolka and Bernardo were taken into custody in 1993. Within weeks of her arrest, Homolka and her lawyer negotiated an agreement allowing her to plead guilty to manslaughter in the deaths of the two girls in return for her testimony against Bernardo. She could be out of Ontario's Kingston Women's Prison on parole as early as July, 1997.

The Homolka deal was ratified in a swift court hearing in St. Catharines, details of which Canadian journalists were banned from reporting for almost two years under a Canadian law intended to assure the accused--in this case Bernardo--of a jury untainted by pretrial publicity. Many wondered if the secrecy was not also intended to protect prosecutors from criticism over the deal, especially as accounts of Homolka's participation in the crimes began to leak out.

Among them was Homolka's admission that she and Bernardo drugged and sexually assaulted her 15-year-old sister, Tammy, in the basement of her parents' home just before Christmas, 1990. Tammy Homolka was choked to death while unconscious, a death initially written off by authorities as an accident. Karla Homolka's plea agreement exempts her from charges in her sister's death.

Bernardo still faces charges in Tammy's death.

At the time Homolka struck her plea bargain, prosecutors did not have the incriminating videotapes, which had been hidden by Bernardo in a light fixture in the house. Police overlooked the evidence during their search of the home over a three-month period, lending credibility to suspicions they fumbled the investigation.

Instead, the tapes wound up in the hands of Bernardo's first defense lawyer, Ken Murray, who held them for 15 months before turning them over to the prosecution and dropping out of the case.

The tapes show the rape of Tammy Homolka, as well as a similar attack on a teen-age friend of Karla Homolka. That girl survived the attack.

In 17 days on the witness stand, Homolka testified that Bernardo beat her, sexually abused her and used her fear and guilt over Tammy's death to coerce her into participating in subsequent crimes. "I felt he had this major, horrible thing to hold over my head. I didn't feel I had a choice and he knew it," she testified.

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