Vulnerable witnesses to be shielded at Pickton inquiry

Squamish Nation elder Eugene Harry, right, blesses the Missing Women Inquiry headed byWally Oppal as it got underway Tuesday in Federal Court in Vancouver.

Squamish Nation elder Eugene Harry, right, blesses the Missing Women Inquiry headed

by Wally Oppal as it got underway Tuesday in Federal Court in Vancouver.

VANCOUVER — Vulnerable witnesses, including some who may have witnessed events at the B.C. farm of serial killer Robert Pickton, will be able to give evidence in sworn documents instead of testifying at a Vancouver inquiry.

The names of the potential witnesses — some of whom the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry has been told fear reprisals by pimps, drug dealers, other sex workers and even police officers — will be banned from publication.

Commissioner Wally Oppal, a former judge, made that ruling on Thursday morning, following Wednesday’s application by lawyer Jason Gratl for special arrangements at the inquiry to protect sex workers by banning their names and allowing them to testify by affidavit.

“We need to make an exclusion because of the vulnerability of these people,” Oppal said.

Pickton, 62, is now serving a life sentence for the murders of six women. He initially was charged with killing 20 more but those charges were stayed in 2010.

The serial killer has been linked by DNA to the deaths of 33 women and has boasted to an undercover police officer that he killed at least 16 more.

Gratl, an independent lawyer representing Downtown Eastside “affected individuals,” noted academic and community surveys have found at least 70 people visited the Pickton farm and lived to talk about it. Gratl noted those people, most of them still sex workers in the Downtown Eastside, likely are very afraid to come forward.

Vancouver Police Department lawyer Sean Hern had no argument with banning the names of witnesses but objected to “vague allegations,” particularly against police, that would taint professional reputations without Hern being able to cross-examine witnesses.

Hern will be able to cross-examine witnesses whose identities are banned, if it is deemed necessary.

Oppal granted Gratl’s application to accept evidence by affidavit, but will give witnesses the opportunity to either withdraw their affidavits (not usually allowed in court proceedings) or testify in open court.

Meanwhile, lawyer Cameron Ward, acting for the families of 18 murdered women, has raised “grave” concerns that he is getting inadequate and delayed disclosure of an estimated two million documents from the inquiry, having received what he believes to be less than 10 per cent of relevant files.

Many of the RCMP files on Pickton and Vancouver’s missing women have been redacted even before the commission gets them, and RCMP lawyers are asking Thursday for even more control over information released to the inquiry.

Oppal responded to Ward’s complaints by saying he knows there are “voluminous documents out there,” and the inquiry is being asked to do a “difficult task” by “re-examining an investigation that took place back in the ’90s.”

Oppal said testily that the commission staff have done a great deal to help Ward, including Oppal himself going to Staples to buy Ward’s law firm computer equipment to analyze electronic versions of documents. Oppal said he has a firm deadline for the hearings — already extended to the end of April — and will deliver his final report in June.

“There’s rarely a day goes by that I’m not stopped in the street by citizens who commend us for the work we’re doing,” said Oppal.

Oppal acknowledged that “feelings and emotions are running high” and asked all participants to be “professional.

“We’re looking into a terrible tragedy that has taken place,” said Oppal, “and at the end of the day I want to see all relevant evidence given to me, and that all people are treated fairly.”

Oppal also said he won’t rule until Monday on RCMP applications on protection of sensitive evidence, which federal Justice lawyer Andrew Majawa emphasized are “not publication bans, contrary to some reports.”

Slated to appear Monday is Vancouver police deputy Chief Doug LePard, who has already apologized for the Vancouver police’s handling of the Pickton case in a 400-page statement. LePard’s evidence is expected to take more than a week.

The inquiry is looking into Vancouver police and RCMP handling of the investigation into missing women, and Pickton, between the years 1997 and 2002.

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