Justice For Girls pulls out of Pickton hearing after serial killer’s death

Advocacy group feels it is better served pressing its case outside the courtroom evidence hearing
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An aerial view of the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. taken by police during their investigation in 2002. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

By Amy Romer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter INDIGINEWS

A women and girls’ advocacy group has pulled out of a court case where they were demanding that the RCMP preserve more than 14,000 exhibits from the Robert Pickton murders.

Justice for Girls was previously an intervenor in the RCMP’s application to dispose of the items, but removed itself from the case prior to a hearing at the B.C. Supreme Court in New Westminster on June 26.

Instead, Justice for Girls has made the decision to “push very hard” outside the courtroom, targeting political and RCMP decision makers who have the power and resources to investigate unsolved cases which would necessitate the preservation of remaining evidence, said the group’s lawyer and director of advocacy Sue Brown.

“We initially intervened because we were seeking to keep all of our options open while we evaluated what the best approach would be,” said Brown.

“But at the end of the day, the court cannot order the RCMP to reinvestigate these cases, and section 490 is a rather inadequate and almost inappropriate venue through which to try.”

Justice for Girls was part of a group of organizations that signed a letter in December calling for the evidence to be preserved after the RCMP filed its sixth legal application to destroy exhibits since 2020. The legal application — section 490 — is a provision designed to protect property owners from the police seizing and holding their property indefinitely.

Brown said that the proceeding, which is “very much routine,” offers little opportunity for the nonprofit to order the RCMP to reinvestigate the case.

Brown said “Canada” has inadequate legislative protections for victims of violent crime “and particularly marginalized victims of homicide, who have no access or resources where the police don’t do a thorough, or proper investigation.”

The case has received a lot of public attention, with more than 13,000 signatories petitioning to preserve the items found on the farm. Over the years, there have been criticisms and speculation about whether others were involved in deaths and disappearances, or whether Pickton was the sole perpetrator.

Advocacy groups have flagged that evidence presented in court suggested he may not have acted alone in the convictions made against him.

“I don’t know that at the end of the day, those exhibits alone would have been sufficient to support indictments against other co-conspirators, if there were any,” Brown said.

“And I think a lot of those answers died with Robert Pickton, unfortunately.”

Another intervenor, Toby Rauch Davis, was present at the hearing — representing the children of victims in a civil case that is claiming damages against the Pickton estate. Rauch Davis argued for the right to preserve exhibits that might be of value to the children.

The more than 14,000 exhibits are from Pickton’s pig farm on Dominion Avenue in Port Coquitlam were used to convict Pickton in the second-degree murders of six women — Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Ann Wolfe, Georgina Papin and Marnie Frey. Twenty more charges against him were stayed.

Meanwhile, remains and DNA of 33 women were found on the property, and Pickton confessed to an undercover officer to killing 49 in total, according to the Vancouver Police Department. The majority of the women killed were Indigenous.

“These women were and are beloved and their lives matter,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip in a statement released by the First Nations Leadership Council.

“This evidence, which includes cherished belongings of stolen loved ones, holds a truth, and as far as I’m concerned, the police have no authority over the truth.”

But the 14,000 exhibits are not the first that will be disposed of. According to Brown, there were about 200,000 exhibits, of which 185,000 were disposed of across five applications from the RCMP between 2020 and 2022.

“These applications happened without barely any attention from the media,” said Brown. “Families really didn’t understand what was going on.”

The 185,000 pieces of evidence including hair follicles were collected from a number of locations, including Pickton’s Burns Road property, also in Port Coquitlam, as well as from vehicles, and sites such as the Ruskin Bridge in Mission, where a partial skull was found and then genetically linked to bones recovered from Pickton’s farm. The woman was never identified.

“For me, that’s troubling, because it’s an unsolved homicide with unidentified human remains,” said Brown. “And how the RCMP could ever evaluate the value of the hundreds of exhibits found around her without knowing who she is, where she came from, or who killed her is strange to me.”

To dispose of evidence after only twenty years linked to one of Canada’s most notorious serial killers is surprising to Brown. Particularly given the numerous unsolved murders and unidentified remains.

In countries like the USA and UK, exhibits in some cases involving a serial killer are kept for multiple decades, if not indefinitely.

“And we’re talking 20 years here. It’s so short when you put it into perspective. It’s really odd,” said Brown.

Since its inception, the RCMP has controlled the processes and decision making around its handling of evidence. A statement released by the police force in December said this latest application relates to property held by the RCMP and that evidence related to the case is being preserved.

“Throughout this process we have been working closely with the victims’ families to return their loved ones’ belongings as well as local First Nations to ensure disposal is done in a culturally sensitive way,” the RCMP said.

“To be clear, as all possible evidence has been captured and retained, the dispersal of property would not affect any future prosecution. Ultimately, the disposition of property must be decided by the courts and we await that decision.”

However, Sasha Ried, who has developed a database for missing and murdered people, said it’s concerning “because advances in DNA analysis are growing every single day. You can’t say there’s no evidentiary value.”

Since the exhibits were first collected in 2002 to 2003, advancements in DNA forensic technologies make it possible to extract DNA using much smaller samples, and probabilistic genotyping can quickly determine who a person probably was. But according to Brown, the RCMP haven’t tested the Pickton exhibits in at least 10 years, despite most advancements arriving in the last five years.

“It’s really hard to understand where they’re coming from and why they’d be doing this now,” she said.

According to the CBC, the RCMP has argued it’s because of a lack of space and the associated costs.

“Quite frankly, based on conversations we’ve had with other law enforcement experts, and in other jurisdictions, that is not a good reason and not a valid explanation for why they’d be taking what I consider to be a very unprecedented step to dispose of the evidence,” said Brown.

The decisions made by the RCMP throughout the Pickton investigation have been shown to be inadequate, inappropriate and flawed through both the Oppal Inquiry and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Indigenous advocates say little change has occurred.

“We haven’t actually seen any systemic change in any form that will truly bring accountability onto the police where they fail to properly investigate,” said Brown.

In a statement from the First Nations Leadership Council, Cheryl Casimer cited precedents set under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the MMIWG inquiry and other key recommendations.

“We call for systemic change that upholds the rights of all Indigenous women,” she said.

“For too long well-researched and widely known priorities and insights into ending systemic gender-based violence and its brutal impacts on our communities have been ignored, and this cannot continue any longer.”

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