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Can colonel get a fair trial?

|Written By Tim Naumetz

OTTAWA - Police leaks and an avalanche of national media coverage of the arrest of Canadian Forces Col. Russell Williams on murder charges could rule out a fair jury trial, criminal defence lawyers worry.

‘What I can tell you is most days there are few things that I would find more interesting. It’s because of the human drama element,’ says Michael Edelson, the lawyer for Col. Russell Williams.

Publication of apparent details of a lengthy interview and statement the former commander of Canada’s largest air force base allegedly gave police before they laid the charges could make prosecution, even through a trial by judge alone, more difficult, says Mark Ertel, past president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa.

“I believe that the public regularly convicts people, but this one is really over the top,” he notes. “The journalists have all convicted him, and everyone I know has convicted him. I think it’s going to be impossible for the guy to get a fair trial with a jury anywhere because the publicity has been so widespread.”

To top it off, the lawyer Williams retained following his arrest, high-profile Ottawa advocate Michael Edelson, has the kind of expertise and courtroom ferocity that could expose even the smallest slip the police may have made in the case, say some of Edelson’s colleagues in the capital’s criminal bar.

The fact that Williams has hired Edelson suggests the accused air force officer may have more than a guilty plea in mind despite the difficulty of bargaining pleas on two separate murder charges.

“If the police have crossed the boundary, Mike will find it,” says Richard Addelman, the criminal defence lawyer whose Ottawa firm Edelson first worked with more than three decades ago.

The spectacular case, involving a 46-year-old officer who was so dedicated and had a career so brilliant fellow officers say he was being groomed for a promotion to lead the entire air force, has had so much publicity that its details could almost go without mention.

The Ontario Provincial Police charged Williams last month with the murder of two women who lived near the Canadian Forces base he commanded near Trenton, Ont. One of the women, 37-year-old  Cpl. Marie-France Comeau, was attached to the base when she was killed. The other woman, 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd, lived in a nearby town and disappeared on Jan. 29.

The OPP also charged Williams with two sexual assaults that occurred in nearby Tweed, Ont., last fall. Lloyd and the two women who were sexually assaulted lived on the same street in the town, Cozy Cove Lane, where Williams and his wife, a prominent health

foundation executive who lived primarily in Ottawa, also had a residence. The OPP have said they are looking at unsolved murder cases in other regions where Williams has been posted, and that investigation

continues.

The details of police events that led to the charges against Williams erupted on newspaper front pages, television broadcasts, Internet news pages, and Twitter soon after his arrest, but a Globe and Mail column by Christie Blatchford contained extraordinary accounts of what went on behind the scenes.

She quoted “sources” to say Williams had given police a “lengthy and wide-ranging statement” about the murders and that he allegedly led police to Lloyd’s body and disclosed details about the sexual assaults and other forced entries that Blatchford termed “lingerie break-ins.”

The column named one detective as the “key officer” in the interview room and, this time attributing the information to “those close to the investigation,” went on to describe the manner in which Williams allegedly gave his statement.

Edelson won’t comment on the case but, in an interview with Law Times, describes the passion for criminal law that has led him to become one of Ottawa’s best-known lawyers on whom some of the most high-profile characters in the city have depended.

“What I can tell you is most days there are few things that I would find more interesting. It’s because of the human drama element: people at their best, people at their worst,” says Edelson, who along with another law student began his career in criminal law by founding a legal aid program at the University of Ottawa in the 1970s.

The list of Edelson’s high-profile clients is long. It includes Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien, acquitted last year of influence-peddling charges stemming from his mayoral election; Margaret Trudeau, whom Edelson represented when a trial judge and later an Ontario Court of Appeal judge tossed out impaired driving charges she faced; Michael Cowpland, the former high-flying head of the Corel Corp. software firm who once faced insider-trading charges; and Maher Arar, whom Edelson represented when the RCMP first sought to interview him on what a commission of inquiry later ruled was unfounded suspicion of terrorism activity.

Edelson has also represented a string of Ottawa police officers and at least one RCMP officer through the years who were charged with assault, sexual assault, and criminal driving offences that, in at least two cases, led to serious injury or death. The most notorious ended in the acquittal of an undercover drug officer who killed a 16-year-old cyclist when the officer drove into him on his way home from a bar in 1994.

The judge who heard the case accepted the officer’s explanation that he left the scene of the collision because he thought he had hit a deer. Crown prosecutors had earlier withdrawn impaired driving charges against the officer because police who conducted the initial investigation didn’t follow the required procedure for taking blood samples. Another case against an off-duty RCMP officer also involved legal errors by police.

“There’s a reason why the police officers hire him. Obviously, they know who is most effective and who they are best off going to in the event they get into trouble,” says David Paciocco, a prominent University of Ottawa law professor who helps Edelson plan trial strategy and performs other work, including appeals, as general counsel at Edelson’s firm.

Edelson once told a newspaper reporter: “I don’t go in there to baby witnesses. That is a war room, you are literally going to battle on behalf of your clients.”

One of Edelson’s weapons behind the scenes, and sometimes in the courtroom, is Paciocco, whose expertise on evidence has been cited at the Supreme Court of Canada.

“He is meticulously prepared,” Paciocco says of Edelson. “And he’s smarter than most, if not all, of the people he has to oppose. That combination of intelligence and meticulous preparation was imposing enough when he started out. Now you couple that with almost three decades of experience and you get the package that you currently have. He’s a very, very effective trial lawyer.”

Addelman also describes Edelson as a meticulous planner with an instinct for finding jugular veins in the courtroom.

“He knows exactly where he’s going with every witness,” says Addelman. “If he finds a weakness, he’s not sure when to stop.”

  • Let him go

    Larry Williams
    Take williams to the center of base Trenton surrounded by the troops he used to command and let him go!!!
  • I. Sanderson
    Mr. Meunier accuses the press of lack of ethics and integrity. The comments about the press suggest that Mr. Meunier really doesn't understand the definition of the terms. Obviously there is a different set of rules for the press and the legal system. Defense lawyers manipulate the law, intimidate witnesses, etc. allowing scumbags to go free to further exploit, kill, etc. Mr. Meunier, be a bit more responsible with you use of the terms.

    Trash? I don't think so. Mr. Meunier would like to muzzle the press. Thanks to the press, public scrutiny helps to keep the reigns on the legal system. Thanks to the press, other victims of Mr. Williams will be able to come forward. Thankfully, we have freedom of speech in this country.

    Mr. Williams has admitted his guilt and the nature of his crimes are so extreme that he should never see the light of day. A protracted court case would be costly and line the pockets of the lawyers, all at the expense of the taxpayers. Unfortunately the taxpayers will have to pay his way as long as he lives. Furthermore, he will be entitled to social welfare programs such as OAS if his survives in prison, again at the expense of the taxpayer.

    Have I condemned him. No! Mr. Williams condemned himself.
  • C. Murphy
    Yes, we have read the trash - Russell William's trash.

    Sorry, but I have no sympathy for Williams. He admitted to his evil deeds and he can reap what he sowed. M. Meunier's obviously is a sympathizer of Williams. Somehow he has forgotten about William's victims, their families, community members who lived in fear, his neighbour who was falsly accused of William's evil acts, the black mark on the military, and so forth.

    Unfortunately too often criminals get off because of some legal loopholel. That is not justice. The legal system, including the lawyers should hang their heads in shame.
  • Col Williams

    Michel D. Meunier, Q.C.
    I was appalled to read the emotional, accusatory and slanted reports on this case in national publications such as Macleans.

    The national lack of journalistic integrity and ethics will surely affect the accused's right to a fair trial. The accused won't need a Melvin Belli for help on this aspect of the case.

    Most Canadians have read the trash. How can any informed person possibly serve on a jury? How can anyone say that they have not read about this matter and/or have not formed some opinion on the matter just on the basis of gossip alone. A Jury of one's peers....indeed.

    I am wondering if some of these publications should not be charged with obstruction or interference with the course of justice. Someone (or some Agency) must surely put a stop to this kind of irresponsible journalism.

    This accused has already been convicted in the Court of Public Opinion. The entire scenerio is shameful and ought to draw much condemnation.

    Michel D. Meunier, Q,C,
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