Samiran Lakshman is president of the B.C. Crown Counsel Association.

Prosecutors see risk in televising riot trials

Video cameras may give defence 'another weapon' to overturn convictions

B.C.’s plan to televise the trials of Stanley Cup rioters is causing concern among prosecutors, according to the president of the B.C. Crown Counsel Association.

Samiran Lakshman warned the planned video broadcasts – if approved by judges – could jeopardize the cases against those rioters or others yet to be charged.

“Not every witness will want to be broadcast on YouTube and the 6 o’clock news,” Lakshman said.

He said the spectre of video trials could open a new avenue for defence lawyers to overturn a conviction, particularly if a witness who might have bolstered an accused’s defence refuses to testify.

“We want to make sure we don’t in any way endanger the prosecution or dissuade people from coming forward.”

If courts approve the video broadcast of an accused who objects, “the defence may have another weapon in their arsenal that the right to a fair trial has been violated.”

Attorney General Shirley Bond last fall ordered Crown to pursue video broadcasts in the riot cases.

B.C.’s Criminal Justice Branch had initially opposed the idea.

Crown counsel spokesman Neil MacKenzie said applications will be made on a case-by-case basis and the aim will be to televise substantive appearances, including both trials and sentencings.

No applications have been heard yet but it’s expected the video feed would be web cast to provide equal access.

Judges will have to carefully weigh the implications of allowing a web-streaming camera in the court.

Limiting the broadcasts to the sentencing stage – after rioters have either pleaded guilty or been convicted – may be one way to address many concerns, said Bentley Doyle, communications director for the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C.

“The sentencing phase is separate so that might be the way to introduce this,” he said. “But the trial process itself would be a lot scarier.”

Judges would need a kill switch to stop video transmission of anything prejudicial, he said.

“The timing of this is more for political optics than logical,” Doyle added. “Why are we bringing cameras into a system that is already hurting for money?”

Lakshman said prosecutors also want to protect their own privacy and he predicts most of them will refuse to be captured on video at riot proceedings.

“They have every right to say no,” he said. “None of the prosecutors on the riot prosecution team have given their consent for their image to be broadcast.”

Lakshman said the courts should be a place for solemn pursuit of the truth – independent of political motives – and not devolve into a “shaming activity” that brands people with “scarlet letters.”

His bigger concern about the public focus on the televised riot trials is that the broader challenges facing the congested court system will be ignored and compounded.

“These applications will occupy precious time that we don’t have to spare in a system that is stressed from the get-go and doesn’t have the capacity to deal with this additional influx of cases,” Lakshman said.

There remains a real and growing risk that more criminal cases will be thrown out because of unreasonable delays, he said.

As of Sept. 30, more than 2,500 adult criminal cases had been waiting longer than 18 months, up from 2,038 in September of 2010.

Bond argued the circumstances of the downtown Vancouver riot justify the use of cameras to satisfy the public demand to see justice done.

“The Stanley Cup riot was watched by many across the province on their home televisions as the event unfolded,” she said in a statement.

“As a result, there is significant interest by the public in these prosecutions and they want greater transparency when the courts deal with those charged in the matters surrounding the riot.”

B.C. Supreme Court has allowed cameras in rare cases – such as its deliberations on anti-polygamy laws last year – but under tight conditions that include a time delay and let any participant refuse to be broadcast.

Twenty-seven people have so far been charged with participating in a riot, and most face additional charges, such as break and enter, mischief or arson.

Vancouver Police say charges may be recommended against hundreds more.

Rioters torched police cars and other vehicles and looted stores in downtown Vancouver June 15 after the Boston Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the Cup final.

Photo released by VPD from night of June 15 riot

Photo released by Vancouver Police of a suspected rioter on the night of June 15.