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Thursday, November 04, 1999

Planned attack, or cry for help?
Defence, Crown paint Hancox case in vastly different light
Christie Blatchford
National Post

If a criminal trial is a game, and in Canada's adversarial justice system it is, somewhat, then by the time John McMahon finished his compelling closing address yesterday in the trial of Rose Cece and Mary Barbara Ann Taylor, it was 5-0 for the prosecution, with three minutes left to go in the third period. Behind Mr. McMahon's resolute good nature and darling choir-boy face there lies a vicious competitor, and he proved that again yesterday.

During much of his closing, he brandished the bright 12-inch butcher knife that is a replica of the bloodied one Ms. Cece plunged through to the heart of Toronto Police Detective-Constable Billy Hancox on the evening of Aug. 4, 1998; Mr. McMahon's language was colourful and pointed (waving the knife, he said at one point, "They weren't using this to give the man a shave," and of the killing, he said, "The man was executed in a planned ambush.") He picked his way through 11 days of testimony, linking statements the two women allegedly made with cold, hard, corroborative evidence.

And when he wound up, almost three hours later, saying, "Bill Hancox paid the ultimate price for doing his duty," he challenged the Ontario Court jurors to do theirs, and return a verdict of second-degree murder.

The defence, it seemed at that moment, was on the boards.

A little after two p.m., Ms. Cece's lead lawyer, Marshall Sack, walked over to the jury box; he, like his counterpart representing Ms. Taylor, had called no evidence whatsoever, and Mr. Sack had put all his eggs in two baskets -- first, in Mr. McMahon's own witnesses, whose testimony often arguably served his client as well as it did the prosecution, and second, in his own ability to make a gripping pitch.

His self-confidence wasn't misplaced. Mr. Sack, with David O'Connor, Ms. Taylor's lawyer, had acknowledged out of the blocks that their clients were guilty as sin of culpable homicide, that they were responsible for killing the 32-year-old officer. The lawyers had even tried to plead them guilty to manslaughter, an effort Mr. McMahon rebuked.

Mr. Sack ratcheted this admission of culpability up a notch: No one but Ms. Cece, not even Ms. Taylor, he said, caused Det.-Const. Hancox's death, and no circumstance in the world -- no hardship -- offers her an out.

"Ms. Cece doesn't seek an excuse or ask you to condone what she did," he said.

Referring to his client's hard-luck, hardrock life, Mr. Sack said, "No socio-economic deprivation, no movement of the stars, no disenfranchised aboriginal background, no amount of intoxication -- nothing -- justifies what Rose Cece did."

But, he said, just as the law requires "a basic minimum of human behaviour, a basic minimum of accountability," so does a finding of second-degree murder demand an intention to kill or an intention to cause such bodily harm that death would reasonably follow.

"Not for a minute, not for a nanosecond, is there the suggestion that Rose Cece is not responsible for the killing; she is. The issue is how you will assess her responsibility for the killing," he said. "This is an inquiry into her degree of criminal responsibility."

As the evidence took the jurors through the day of the slaying and those immediately before, Mr. Sack said what they were really witness to was the "ultimate disintegration of the thought processes of a human being."

Ms. Cece, like her lover, was a crack-cocaine addict, homeless, broke, depressed and living in a park the weekend before she and Ms. Taylor spotted Det.-Const. Hancox in the parking lot of a strip mall where he was working, undercover, on a surveillance stakeout. She was filled with self-loathing, but whatever hatred she had was for the bulk of that day aimed squarely at herself.

But still, Mr. Sack said, she was clinging to hope -- that she might kick the drug habit; that she might get help; that she and Ms. Taylor might escape the big city for the country, that there might be a way out. Look at the pages of her diary which are now an exhibit, Mr. Sack asked the jurors. If you do that, he said, you will see that even that last weekend, "she still has that adhesive that keeps rational thoughts, that keeps us from suicide, that keeps us coping, that keeps us doing right from wrong."

But by the morning of the slaying, when Ms. Cece and Ms. Taylor showed up at a downtown native centre, "that adhesive has begun to dissolve. Ms. Cece is on the road to disintegration."

Throughout the course of that day, as the two women were counselled by a social worker at that centre, then driven to Scarborough Centenary Hospital (where they came within a hair of being admitted to the psychiatric ward but ended up marching out in a snit), then bouncing from pillar to post -- now trying to beg a ride, now making weepy phone calls to relatives wherein they pledged they were going to kill themselves, finally stealing the big knife and hatching a plan to steal a car and just drive out of Toronto -- Ms. Cece was bit by bit falling apart.

Some of the witnesses who saw the pair in the latter hours of that summer's day had told the jurors Ms. Cece seemed lucid, unimpaired, but others, Mr. Sack remembered, spoke of how Ms. Cece was deathly quiet, withdrawn, how she had stumbled into the walls of a hospital corridor or had been seen rocking back and forth or banging her head, of how she had been slurring her words.

They were all right, Mr. Sack said. They were all telling the truth: The woman they had seen was fighting to hang onto her moral brakes, and in the good moments, she was winning, and in the others, she was not. Her on-and-off physical deterioration "was a mirroring" of what was going on in her head, of a terrible shattering of her actual thinking process.

In the end, he said, like some "celestial body that collapses in upon itself, that's what happened to Ms. Cece as the day unfolded."

Here, Mr. Sack held out his version of the butcher's knife, an admission form Ms. Cece had filled out at the hospital just hours before the killing. "If you're looking to see if her cognitive, rational processes ... are in the process of disintegration," he told the jurors, "what better evidence than this?" In one hand, he had the pages of her diary, the writing clear and legible; in the other, the form, the writing a desperate scrawl.

It showed, he said, that the magic adhesive, "the material that keeps thought together with morality in the mind," which allows a human being to form intent and to know in the most fundamental way what she is doing, had begun to dissolve.

By the time Ms. Cece came at Billy Hancox with that bright, shiny knife through his half-open driver's side window, Mr. Sack said, the adhesive had worn away. Rose Cece made "a backhanded blind stab," and the man Mr. Sack referred to, quoting Shakespeare, as a "precious friend" was forever gone. Marshall Sack spoke for less than an hour, almost entirely without notes. By the time he sat down, the score may not have been tied, but it was clear that there was a game afoot.

The case will go to the jury on Monday.

Copyright Southam Inc.