In this trial, the devil truly is in the details

More than 300 journalists are accredited for the trial of Robert Pickton, accused of murdering many prostitutes. The saturation coverage borders on atrocious pornography. What are we going to find out from it? We are going to find out — or some reporters, editors and readers hope we’re going to find out — exactly how a number of women were sexually killed. Why do we want to know that? What excuse can we have for not averting our gaze?

Not from the fact that they were killed horribly. Nor the question whether some of our laws should be changed to help save others from this fate. And I do not object to news features that give the victims names, histories and the fond recollections of friends and family. But we don’t need to know how they died or where the body parts were found. Nor should we want to.

As this newspaper editorialized Thursday, readers can avoid specific stories. But it should not be indecent to leave the daily paper where children might see it. And journalists can exercise and routinely do exercise moral judgment about how to cover stories for adults.

I do not suggest primly pretending dreadful things don’t happen, at least to people we know. Quite the reverse. We should be acutely aware of life’s horrors, so painfully able to imagine the details that we recoil from wallowing in them. Which I fear is behind this excessive coverage. What else are 300 journalists going to do but rush back with gore and smear it across TV screens and newspaper pages? We’d only need about 10 to tell us when a verdict comes down.

That is one thing we do want to know. Did he do it? The presumption of innocence might seem a translucent legal fiction here, but I still say we need a trial. High-profile cases have been bungled in this country before.

Which raises another thing we need to know. If the evidence is as conclusive as it seems, how can it possibly have taken the prosecution five years to get ready for trial? Such delays make a mockery of justice in every way.

If someone is innocent, years of the emotional and financial stress of a trial constitute unwarranted punishment for which no true restitution is possible.

For the families of victims, too, the lengthy delay is torture. Not just uncertainty as to whether they got, and will manage to convict, the right person. In a case like this, there’s an inevitable violation of privacy, the necessary publication of some lurid details of the last, degrading suffering of a daughter, sister, mother or wife. But family and friends shouldn’t have to sit and dread it every day for years.

It’s not even fair to the jury. That they must weigh appalling evidence is, again, unavoidable. But a year away from their normal lives, and their jobs, for just $18,580 a year, is not reasonable. What about the evidence will take that long to evaluate?

There are other, larger questions about this case we cannot properly ignore. Among them, surely, is the high price we pay for “blue laws” against victimless wrongdoing. I’m no libertine who thinks prostitution is just another career option. I dislike the phrase “sex trade worker” not because I wish to be insulting but because I want to warn people that prostitution is degrading. But laws against it prevent a small number of people from drifting into it at the expense of trapping many others in it, especially if they also have illegal drug habits. It’s a bad trade-off.

If we think prostitution is morally wrong, we should want to help people get out of it. Making it illegal not only traps prostitutes in dismal lifestyles with sinister companions; it puts them at grave risk of being murdered before they can get their lives together. I don’t see enough benefits from such a law to outweigh giving sexual psychopaths a ready supply of victims.

It also seems clear that if many psychoactive drugs were not illegal, those who take them would be less likely to turn to prostitution, legal or not, to fuel their habit. For one thing, they would need less money. For another, they would be less likely to be fired if legitimate employers discovered they were users. And for a third, they would be less likely to be fired because they’d been put in jail. Again, you need not favour the use of crack cocaine to think laws against it do more harm than good.

So there is much to discuss here. But the details of the crimes of which Robert Pickton stands accused, including specific indignities to dead bodies, are not something we need to know. They are not something we should want to know.

They are not something we should cover.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson