May 17th, 2024

Lawyers for man accused of killing Manitoba women argue publicity creates juror bias

By Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press on April 30, 2024.

Donna Bartlett (centre), the grandmother of Marcedes Myran, walks to the Court of King’s Bench of Manitoba building in downtown Winnipeg, where the trial of Jeremy Skibicki, the man accused of killing Myran and three other Indigenous women is set to begin, on Monday, April 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Daniel Crump.

WINNIPEG – A psychologist who went over hundreds of media stories about the killings of four women in Winnipeg says pretrial publicity creates bias in jurors.

Dr. Christine Ruva, a professor and chair of psychology at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus, testified Tuesday in the case of Jeremy Skibicki.

Skibicki, 37, has pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder.

The partial remains of Rebecca Contois were found in a garbage bin and at a city-run landfill in 2022. Police have said they believe the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are at a different, privately owned landfill outside the city.

The location of an unidentified woman Indigenous leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman, is unknown.

Skibicki’s lawyers have asked that his jury trial, which is set to start with opening statements next Wednesday, be heard instead by a judge alone. They have argued that two years of publicity on the case has made jury members partial.

Ruva said media coverage of the killings has been consistent and emotional, which can implicitly bias a jury.

“(Jurors) don’t know the extent of their bias,” said Ruva.

Court of King’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal questioned the psychologist about alternatives.

“The solution is what? Get rid of jury trials in high-profile cases?” he asked.

Ruva said the venue could be changed for high-profile trials and different questions could be asked during the jury selection process.

Ruva also worked with polling firm Mainstreet Research to come up with questions for a survey in February. The poll commissioned by Legal Aid Manitoba, whose lawyers represent Skibicki, was to gauge people’s perceptions about Skibicki and the case.

Out of about 530 respondents, 81 per cent said that based on what they saw, read or heard about the case, they believed Skibicki is guilty.

Court heard Ruva’s research focused on the legal system in the United States.

Crown prosecutor Christian Vanderhooft said that unlike in the U.S., many details of alleged crimes in Canada are not reported until they come out in a trial.

Vanderhooft also referenced a high-profile case in Winnipeg that ended with an acquittal. The killing of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, along with the trial of her accused killer, Raymond Cormier, garnered significant media coverage, and the jury found him not guilty of second-degree murder.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2024.

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