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B.C. premier bidding 'good riddance' to slain serial killer undermines rule of law, say experts

'Let’s not beat around the bush,' B.C. Premier David Eby and Minister of Public Safety are 'approving murder,' says prison law expert Tom Engel at the Canadian Prison Law Association.
B.C. Premier Dabd Eby bid "good riddance" to serial killer Willie Pickton — a sign of endorsing extrajudicial violence and undermining the rule of law to score political points, experts suggest

The seemingly celebratory tone struck by B.C. Premier David Eby and Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth following the in-custody killing of serial killer Robert (Willie) Pickton has been described as inappropriate and troubling by experts of criminal law and prisoner rights.

“It’s astounding,” said prison law expert John Conroy K.C. from his law office in Abbotsford.

On May 31 Pickton succumbed to injuries from an assault at the hands of another inmate at Port-Cartier Institution in Quebec. Pickton, 74, had been serving a life sentence for six counts of second-degree murder. He also confessed to a undercover police officer to killing 49 women after his arrest in 2002 at his pig farm in Port Coquitlam.

Following Correctional Service Canada’s announcement of Pickton’s death, Eby and Farnworth, the top two individuals in charge of prisoner safety in B.C., issued a joint statement.

"My first thought goes to the families of the victims. For some, the death of this notorious serial killer may bring closure and for others it will reopen old wounds. It is a difficult day for anyone who lost someone they loved because of his cruelty and heinous crimes,” stated Eby.

"Robert Pickton preyed on the most vulnerable people in our society. These women were cast aside as less than equal, and less than worthy because of who they were.

"We are committed to recognizing the dignity of every person to avoid something like this happening ever again.

"Good riddance," concluded Eby.

'He's approving murder'

Conroy said Eby’s remarks undermine the rule of law and, ironically, human dignity.

“We want to encourage people to obey the law and appreciate the importance of the law and how we do things according to law and don't take the law into our own hands, even against the most violent criminals,” said Conroy, adding those responsible for state-sanctioned punishment need to be especially mindful of upholding the rule of law within penitentiary walls.

“So, it's disturbing that the premier and perhaps others, simply because Mr. Pickton is a notorious criminal, that they seem to have no problem with him being killed in an institution by another prisoner when he's supposed to be, according to law, kept safe throughout his sentence,” said Conroy, who has published an introduction to incarceration laws at the Canadian Prison Law Association.

“Let’s not beat around the bush, he’s approving murder,” said Tom Engel, the association’s president.

Engel also called Eby’s statement “pretty disappointing given his background,” citing the premier’s own online biography indicating Eby’s “work on human rights and democratic freedoms.”

Pickton's high profile raises questions over staff facilitation, negligence

B.C. criminal defence lawyer and Sarah Leamon said Eby and Farnworth rightfully first acknowledged the families of Pickton’s victims, however, “to go so far as to say ‘good riddance,’ given that he (Pickton) succumbed to injuries he sustained while in custody, is wildly inappropriate and problematic.”

Leamon told Glacier Media, via email, that the lack of deference paid to the in-custody killing, regardless of the exceptional circumstances, “causes legitimate concern about how our elected officials, who are tasked with ensuring prisoner safety, view the matter.”

Echoing Conroy, Leamon said the message “seems to condone the violent act that was perpetrated against Pickton as legitimate” and “this is a troubling message for anyone to send in this — or any — context.”

Ottawa-based criminal defence lawyer and prisoner rights advocate Michael Spratt reacted similarly to the comments.

Spratt said while it is “completely appropriate” to recognize Pickton’s victims, “Mr. Eby should be ashamed to use the phrase ‘Good riddance,’” said Spratt, via email.

“Mr. Pickton was murdered while he was in the care of the state. He was never ever going to be released from prison, but he should not have been subject to violence. No one, not even those who commit horrible crimes should be subject to violence — especially when in a Canadian jail,” added Spratt, noting “violence in the Canadian carceral system is a massive problem.”

Prisoner rights advocate Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of West Coast Prison Justice Society, noted to Glacier Media that while Pickton is not representative of a typical prisoner in Canada “it's really important for correctional services and the Minister of Public Safety and David Eby to be concerned about issues of violence in prison, which are very frequently facilitated by staff.”

Metcalfe speculated Pickton “would have been in the most extreme secure custody because of his notoriety.

“So, while I don't know the circumstances, it must have been facilitated by staff and this happens all the time,” Metcalfe asserted.

Engel said “If [Pickton’s killing] wasn’t facilitated, there must be gross negligence.”

Correctional Service of Canada launching investigation into assault

Correctional Service of Canada stated it has notified police of Pickton’s death. 

“The safety and security of our institutions remains paramount for us. We are launching a Board of Investigation (BOI) into the assault that took place,” said the service in a statement. 

“The investigation will examine all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the assault, including whether policies and protocols were followed. It will also identify any recommendations and corrective measures, as needed.”

Engel said it is possible that when Pickton’s killer faces a trial, Eby’s comments could be used by his defence as a mitigating factor.

Glacier Media raised concerns voiced by experts to Eby at a press conference on June 5. Eby, a lawyer himself, was asked if his statement could have provided an extra level of nuance to denounce the killing.

“I guess, you know, when I think about the wholesale slaughter of vulnerable women in the Downtown Eastside that decimated families, and it is just hard to find a place of any compassion in my heart for Robert Pickton, and I'll say again, good riddance,” replied Eby.

Glacier Media asked Eby if he supports re-establishing capital punishment.

Eby did not answer but stated: “I'm sure that the federal government's processes will address the offenses committed behind bars by this other individual.”

'Beginning of the end of respect for the rule of law'

Spratt expressed surprise at Eby’s response.

“Surely Mr. Eby is sophisticated enough to comfort the families of Mr. Pickton’s victims and denounce jailhouse violence at the same time,” said Spratt.

Without commenting on Eby and Farnworth specifically, a former B.C. prison judge and Speaker of the B.C. Legislature Darryl Plecas said politicians are increasingly showing a lack of regard for the criminal justice system for political gain.

“The commonality among these inappropriate comments is that they will always be in reference to high profile, publicly detested offenders — so the politicians in question know they are not likely to be criticized for their inappropriate remarks,” said Plecas, a professor emeritus and researcher at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Plecas added that the damage of Eby’s remarks fall in line with “inappropriate comments” from Ontario Premier Doug Ford on murderer Paul Bernardo’s incarceration status or even former U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly calling judges corrupt.

Plecas said news reporters should challenge politicians on these matters as “we are really at a place in time where we are witnessing the beginning of the end of respect for the rule of law in the western world (and relatedly, the end of democracies as we know them).”

Conroy echoed Plecas, saying politicians such as Eby are tugging on the emotions of the public but failing to educate it on the nature of how the justice system operates to prevent chaos and lawlessness.

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