Ottawa Citizen
Thursday April 20, 2000

Fighting the fear of doing justice

Government plans safeguards for jurors, lawyers, witnesses

Jim Bronskill
The Ottawa Citizen

The Justice Department, following a cross-country consultation, is studying new measures to protect lawyers, juries, witnesses and others from the serious and growing problem of intimidation by criminals.

The department's probe uncovered several disturbing examples, from overt threats against prosecutors to more subtle tactics, such as gang members shadowing jurors, said Michael Zigayer, a Justice official who helped gather information in several cities.

"Some prosecutors have discussed with me the nervousness they feel, after they've worked late at night, having to go out into the dark to get to their car," he said.

"There is reason for concern. And I think there are steps that can be taken to address many of (the issues)."

Mr. Zigayer expects MPs will examine the problem and make recommendations when the Commons justice committee turns its attention to organized crime in a series of hearings as early as this spring. "If it deals with this issue, it'll be very helpful to us."

Last October, Bloc Quebecois MP Yvan Loubier revealed he had been granted police protection after he received death threats for defending farmers terrorized by drug gangs. The gangs were planting marijuana in fields and threatening farmers to keep quiet.

Mr. Zigayer was reluctant to discuss changes to better protect players in the justice system, but suggested they could include measures to make jurors and witnesses more anonymous.

For example, the addresses of jurors, which currently must be disclosed, could be withheld from the defence.

Some testimony could be recorded in advance on videotape, or the identity of a witness might be released only after the conclusion of a trial. The media or the public could be excluded from all or part of court proceedings.

Recently the department quietly circulated a paper on the issue to members of the criminal justice community. Officials then followed up with interviews in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver -- centres where international crime groups are active. They canvassed jury members, witnesses, prosecutors, judges, police and corrections officials.

"What you hear is people talking about their own personal experiences, in sometimes very moving terms. It's very powerful, some of the stories that they relate to you," said Mr. Zigayer, who, as it happens, knew two lawyers who were murdered.

Last month in Hull, an accused man threatened in open court to break the prosecutor's arms and legs with a baseball bat and put out a contract on his wife and children.

In another case, a biker, wearing the colours of an outlaw motorcycle club, parked in front of an official's house and began tinkering with his bike.

Jurors in the 1998 murder trial of Hells Angels kingpin Maurice Boucher complained of feeling threatened by intimidating stares from gang members. In a poll, 82 per cent of 1,000 people questioned said they would fear reprisals if they were a juror in the trial of a person said to be a member of a criminal organization such as the Mafia or Hells Angels.

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen