Justice For Girls withdraws from Pickton hearing after serial killer’s death

Justice For Girls withdraws from Pickton hearing after serial killer’s death

Advocacy group says it’s best to argue your case outside of court hearings

By Amy Romer, INDIGINEWS Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A women and girls’ advocacy group has withdrawn from a court case demanding the RCMP preserve more than 14,000 pieces of evidence related to the Robert Pickton murders.

Justice for Girls had previously intervened in the RCMP’s application to dispose of the items, but withdrew from the case ahead of a hearing in British Columbia Supreme Court in New Westminster on June 26.

Instead, Justice for Girls has made the decision to “lobby very hard” outside the courtroom, targeting policymakers and the RCMP who have the power and resources to investigate unsolved cases that would require preserving remaining evidence, said the group’s lawyer and advocacy director, Sue Brown.

“We initially stepped in because we were looking to keep all of our options open while we assessed what the best approach would be,” Brown said.

“But ultimately the court cannot order the RCMP to review these cases, and section 490 is a rather inadequate and almost inappropriate way to do that.”

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

Brown said the procedure, which is “very routine,” offers little opportunity for the non-profit to order the RCMP to re-investigate the matter.

Brown said “Canada” does not have adequate legislative protections for victims of violent crime “and particularly for marginalized victims of homicide, who have neither access nor resources when police fail to conduct a thorough or proper investigation.”

The case attracted widespread public attention, with more than 13,000 signatures demanding the preservation of the items found on the farm. Over the years, there has been criticism and speculation about whether other people were involved in the deaths and disappearances, or whether Pickton was solely responsible.

Victims’ rights groups have pointed out that evidence presented in court suggests he may not have acted alone in the convictions against him.

“I don’t know whether, ultimately, that evidence alone would have been sufficient to warrant charges against other co-conspirators, if there had been any,” Brown said.

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

Another intervener, Toby Rauch Davis, was present at the hearing, representing the victims’ children in a civil case seeking damages from the Pickton estate. Rauch Davis argued for the right to preserve evidence that might be useful to the children.

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

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

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

“This evidence, which includes valuable items stolen from relatives, contains a truth, and as far as I’m concerned, the police have no authority over the truth.”

But the 14,000 exhibits aren’t the first to be disposed of. According to Brown, there were about 200,000 exhibits, 185,000 of which were disposed of in five RCMP requests between 2020 and 2022.

“These applications were filed without much media attention,” Brown said. “Families didn’t really understand what was going on.”

The 185,000 pieces of evidence, including hair follicles, were collected from several locations, including Pickton’s property on Burns Road, 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 later genetically linked to bones recovered from Pickton’s farm. The woman has never been identified.

“To me, it’s troubling because this is an unsolved homicide and unidentified human remains,” Brown said. “And I don’t understand how the RCMP could assess the value of the hundreds of pieces of evidence that were found around her without knowing who she is, where she came from or who killed her.”

Brown is surprised to see evidence of one of Canada’s most notorious serial killers being disposed of after only twenty years in custody. Especially considering there are many unsolved murders and unidentified human remains.

In countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, evidence in some serial killer cases is kept for decades, or even indefinitely.

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

Since its creation, the RCMP has controlled the processes and decisions surrounding the handling of evidence. In a statement released in December, the police force indicated that this latest request concerns property held by the RCMP and that evidence related to the case is being preserved.

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

“To be clear, given that all possible evidence has been collected and preserved, the dispersal of the assets will have no bearing on future prosecutions. Ultimately, how the assets are used will have to be decided by the courts and we await that decision.”

Sasha Ried, who developed a database on missing and murdered persons, believes, however, that this situation is worrying “because progress in DNA analysis is progressing day by day. We cannot say that there is no evidentiary value.”

Since the first pieces of evidence were collected in 2002 and 2003, advances in forensic DNA analysis techniques have made it possible to extract DNA from much smaller samples, and probabilistic genotyping can quickly determine a person’s likely identity. But Brown said the RCMP hasn’t analyzed Pickton’s evidence in at least a decade, despite most of the advances coming in the last five years.

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

According to the CBC, the RCMP claimed this was due to a lack of space and associated costs.

“Quite frankly, based on conversations we’ve had with other law enforcement experts and in other jurisdictions, that’s not a good reason and not a valid explanation for why they would take what I consider to be an unprecedented step to suppress evidence,” Brown said.

Decisions made by the RCMP throughout the Pickton inquiry have been shown to be inadequate, inappropriate and wrong, both in the Oppal inquiry and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Indigenous rights advocates say little has changed.

“We have yet to see any systemic change in any form that would actually hold police accountable when they fail to investigate properly,” Brown said.

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 inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and other key recommendations.

“We are calling for systemic change that respects the rights of all Indigenous women,” she said.

“For too long, well-researched and widely known priorities and ideas to end systemic gender-based violence and its brutal impacts on our communities have been ignored, and this cannot continue.”

ALSO READ: Pickton is gone, but evidence linked to notorious killer must remain: defenders

ALSO READ: Little change for women’s safety since Pickton murders, says First Nations chief