National Post

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Friday, November 05, 1999

A passionate plea to a jury: Do not dignify a horrible death
Their decision is what name to attach to a horrid crime
Christie Blatchford
National Post

If it were lawyers, and not their clients, who were on trial, there isn't a jury in the world which would convict David O'Connor -- of anything.

Mr. O'Connor represents Mary Barbara Ann Taylor, one of the two women who have admitted killing Toronto Police Detective-Constable Billy Hancox last year, but who are pleading not guilty to second-degree murder. Tall, attractive and genial, Mr. O'Connor has a spectacular grin, a great head of white hair, and a tongue of silver.

He is, in short, a charmer. He simply can't help himself. But yesterday, he had a tough room to work.

Mr. O'Connor was making his closing address to the Ontario Court jurors who next Monday will begin deliberating the fate of Ms. Taylor and Rose Cece, her stout lover and co-accused in the prisoner's box. With the pair having tried to plead guilty to the lesser offence of manslaughter, and admitting responsibility for Det.-Const. Hancox's death, the only task for the jurors will be what name to attach to the crime.

Mr. O'Connor began by telling the jurors how he had run into His Lordship, presiding judge Mr. Justice David Watt, in the hall a few moments before court convened.

Justice Watt, Mr. O'Connor said, asked whether he would be quoting from King Lear in his address -- presumably a wry reference to the lyrical, Shakespeare-laden closing the day before from Ms. Cece's lawyer, Marshall Sack.

"We've heard from His Lordship, and Crown counsel, and Mr. Sack about your role here," Mr. O'Connor told the jurors. "You are the sole deciders of the facts, you're higher than His Lordship." Here, he flashed his delighted, endearing grin.

"In fact," he said, "the only difference between you and His Lordship, aside from the fact that you're higher, is that you don't make his salary."

Justice Watt offered a wan smile (no joke is ever so funny as the one the judge himself makes), but the jurors giggled and snorted; they were liking Mr. O'Connor, and who could blame them?

Mr. O'Connor then launched into a protracted reading, not from King Lear, but from G. K. Chesterton's essay on his own jury duty experience, called The Twelve Men.

"Tragedy," Mr. O'Connor read, "is the highest expression of the infinite value of human life." He continued: "Never have I stood so close to pain, and so far away from pessimism." He quoted extensively on the trend, already established in Mr. Chesterton's time, to relying on hired guns, on experts.

"But determining guilt," he read, "is much too important to be trusted to trained men."

What Mr. Chesterton was praising, Mr. O'Connor said, was the collective experience and common sense of ordinary jurors. And common sense, he told them, would not lead them to yield to prosecutor John McMahon's pitch that they convict the women of the more serious offence.

"Please, please," Mr. O'Connor said, "do not dignify the horrible, tragic death of William Hancox with a finding of second-degree murder."

At this point, what Mr. O'Connor seemed poised to do was the usual -- review the evidence, with a view to interpreting it in his client's favour.

He did some of this, but what he also did, in effect, was to clamber into the very place Ms. Taylor, and Ms. Cece, had not gone -- the witness box: Mr. O'Connor, instead of going over the evidence, essentially began to give it.

The jurors had heard much of the effects of crack cocaine upon Ms. Cece. Well, Ms. Taylor, Mr. O'Connor said, was likely doing every bit as much. He saw her as a sort of Buddha, he said, "arms outstretched," begging whatever drugs "I can get, where I can get it. Give it to me, right now."

He offered an original interpretation of the most chilling evidence against the pair, this from Ms. Taylor's purported confession to her mother that after a brief initial encounter with the young officer, they had met behind his surveillance van, Ms. Taylor allegedly egging on Ms. Cece with cries of, "Fuck it! Use the knife!" and begging her to prove her love.

If that "moment of truth" even happened, Mr. O'Connor said (he doubted it did, and called Ms. Taylor's mother a liar), it was not behind Det.-Const. Hancox's van, but in an empty field across the street from the hospital, where he said the women likely went that night. It was there, he said, though there has been no evidence of this at trial, that they decided they couldn't kill themselves.

As for the witnesses who saw the women fleeing from the crime scene, and Mr. McMahon's claim their flight was evidence of their coolheadedness and intent, Mr. O'Connor said what that was was panicked disbelief. He imagined Ms. Taylor saying, "Holy fuck, what have we done now? Holy fuck, and off they go. If they're so compos mentis, so sane, they could have hid in some bushes there ... they put their finger in the light socket, their hair went on end, and boom! ... Boom! What the fuck have we done?"

There's a great distance between G. K. Chesterton and his paean to the jury system and Mr. O'Connor's imagined, "Holy fuck, what have we done?" but the chasm between liking the lawyer and liking the client is every bit as big.

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