London Free Press

November 1, 2001

Vandenelsen judgment 'sexual prejudice'

By Herman Goodden -- London Free Press

I'll never forget that autumn afternoon when the O.J. Simpson verdict came down. I was one of a half dozen customers huddled around the radio at the front of a used book shop. Whipped into a frenzy by relentless media coverage, all of us felt a little ashamed about how much we'd come to care about this case.

Crimes as bad or worse were committed all the time, some much closer to home. But those crimes didn't come with all these gaudy bells and whistles -- the lurid details such as the bloody glove, the discarded knife and the murdered wife's peer group of celebrity leeches and hangers-on. Such grisly touches hooked our attentions like tabloid newspapers in a grocery check-out line.

That day in the shop, we ignored the new arrivals cart and the table covered in specially reduced titles, straining instead to catch the first indications of how this verdict was going to go. When the jury foreman announced that Simpson had been found not guilty, we stared at each other in disbelief.

"An abortion," one of us said.

"We was robbed," said another.

Immediately, a pent-up sense of outrage started pacing around inside my ribcage like a trapped animal. Within hours, talk show hosts had a new two-syllable term for betrayal and unpunished guilt: "O.J." But what were the rest of us ever going to do with this festering sense of injustice?

That was the American justice system, we consoled ourselves. Throw around enough money and anyone can purchase a get-out-of-jail-free card. But here in incorruptible Canada, we have discovered, money might not turn the trick but good old sexist prejudice with a dose of political correctness will suffice quite nicely.

The jury acquittal last Friday of Carline Vandenelsen of Stratford on child abduction charges left me more pig-biting mad than any case since O.J.'s. What was the jury thinking on this one? A disturbingly impulsive mother who had only limited and supervised access to her then-seven-year-old triplets, stole the kids from their father, yanked them out of their school and community and headed on the lam to Mexico and Panama for three months. Crossing borders, she stuffed the kids into the trunk of her car to avoid detection. The case was featured on the network crime show, America's Most Wanted, and Vandenelsen was listed as a fugitive at large with Interpol.

Vandenelsen selfishly broke the law, traumatized her kids and subjected her ex-husband to the unimaginable horror of not knowing if he'd ever see his children again. And she did all this rather than go through the normal channels of a custodial hearing, where she could argue her access to the kids should be increased. In fact, an access hearing was scheduled to take place just a couple weeks after Vandenelsen packed up the triplets and ran for it.

After five years of arguing with her ex-husband over custody and visitation arrangements, Vandenelsen had no faith things were about to go her way. Rather, she feared she was about to lose all access to her children and her lawyer argued in the trial Vandenelsen was not guilty of abduction by "reason of necessity."

An ingenious use of a now rarely invoked plea, the argument was Vandenelsen's children would suffer emotional and psychological damage if their mother was denied all access to them.

Incredibly, the jury overlooked the emotional and psychological damage Vandenelsen inflicted by kidnapping her children -- not to mention the physical danger -- and bought this argument, acquitting her for the very deeds everybody knows she committed.

I can only deduce something in the judge's charge to the jury persuaded them to neglect the question of criminal culpability and justify this perversion of maternal love instead. Had such a plea been made on behalf of an abducting father, it would have been laughed out of court.

I've served on two juries so far. My name seems to come up about once a decade and, come to think of it, I'm probably about due for another round. The pay stinks but there are compensations. I never feel so close to the throbbing engine room of democracy than when taking my place with 11 other men and women, as we strive to banish our usual prejudices and assumptions and exhaustively examine and appraise the evidence of the case set before us. I don't believe that happened last week in Stratford.


Herman Goodden is a London freelance writer. His column appears in Monday's and Thursday's Opinion pages. It no longer appears in Sunday's A&E section. He can be e-mailed at herman.goodden@sympatico.ca.

Letters to the editor should be sent to letters@lfpress.com.

Copyright (c) 2001 The London Free Press,