Missing Women Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal at the December 2012 release of his report Forsaken on how the justice system failed the victims of serial killer Robert Pickton.

B.C. prosecutors shift stance on support for vulnerable witnesses

Change flows from handling of woman who escaped from serial killer Robert Pickton, Missing Women Inquiry recommendations

B.C.’s Crown prosecutors are revising how they deal with vulnerable victims and witnesses to crime in response to the 2012 Missing Women Inquiry findings that their mishandling of one woman may have let serial killer Robert Pickton extend his murder spree for years.

A prostitute barely escaped alive from his Port Coquitlam farm after a bloody knife fight with Pickton in 1997 but charges of attempted murder against him were dropped a year later, in part because Crown decided the drug-addicted woman was unable to credibly testify.

Inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal recommended changes in Crown procedures and suggested in his report that better support for the woman and preparation by prosecutors to deal with her might have gleaned more information from her and got the case to trial.

At least a dozen women went missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside between the 1997 attack and Pickton’s 2002 arrest, including the six women he was eventually convicted of killing.

The province’s Criminal Justice Branch unveiled a new tailored policy to deal with vulnerable victims and witnesses, recognizing that, in cases involving serious injury, they require ongoing support throughout the prosecution.

The policy highlights various best practices, including early identification of witnesses needing support and seeking appropriate protective conditions as part of any bail order.

“Crown counsel should keep in mind that vulnerable victims and witnesses may be particularly subject to pressure, intimidation and interference,” the policy says, adding Crown should try to determine why they’re reluctant to testify and develop strategies to address the issues.

Vulnerable witnesses are defined as ones where there’s a reasonable likelihood that their effective participation in the justice system “will be significantly diminished, or eliminated, if accommodations or supports are not made available.”

It says people in the sex trade, as well as aboriginals, may be particularly vulnerable.

But witnesses may be vulnerable due to various other factors, including addiction, homelessness, mental illness, advanced age, a history of being abused, precarious legal status or ethnic, religious or cultural perspectives.

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