Evil and our need to know
The unthinkable crimes of Col. Russell Williams are now on the public record. Many people are asking why the media must cover them in such graphic detail.
Canada has never seen such public disclosure — in photos, videotapes and the written record — as in this case. It follows on the guilty pleas entered by Col. Williams, the former commander of Canadian Forces Base at Trenton, Ontario, to the murder of two women, the rape of two others, and almost eighty break-ins from which he took hundreds of items of women’s underclothes.
It is right and necessary that the evidence of this evil man’s crimes shall be put into the public realm.
The reason is that our courts must be open at all times and in all ways. The media must have unfettered access to their proceedings. It’s the only way we have to ensure the fairness and equity of the justice system.
Under Canadian law and custom, anyone accused of a crime must be brought promptly into an open court, to be publicly identified by name, with the public able to hear and see the evidence against them.
In countries lacking this protection, people can and do disappear from their homes and the streets never to be heard of again. We mustn’t be so naive as to think this could never happen here.
This does not excuse media excess. By and large, Canadian newspapers have handled the Williams case with restraint. The Globe and Mail’s simple one-paragraph page 1 item today was all we needed to know where we could find the full story if we wanted it.
The Sun papers went their usual sleazy route. The Toronto Star, sadly, chose to fill a large part of its front page with a sick headline:
“If I die, will you make sure my Mom knows I love her?”
Headlines like this simply encourage a descent into blood lust. Our hearts go out to the friends and relatives of the victims who have testified in court. They have courageously thrown this evil man’s abominable acts back into his face.
So should the death penalty be restored?
No. Not to save Williams, but to protect other, potentially innocent accused, who might be brought before the courts.
Quite a few men — and some women — who were convicted of murder in Canada over the past 20 or 30 years have later been found innocent. In the years that Canada had capital punishment, many innocent people were hanged. I’m writing about these injustices in my article, Reasonable Doubt, which will be in the December issue of Canada’s History.
In the case of Russell Williams, police have conducted themselves brilliantly and with great care. They collected solid evidence — tire marks and footprints unique to Williams — before questioning him. A skillful 10 1/2 hour interview brought full confession to his horrendous crimes.
The court has acted wisely in permitting public disclosure of the evidence. This information must be in the public realm for two reasons.
First, to fully inform the presiding judge of the case against Williams. He needs this in determining the sentence he will impose — likely life imprisonment, with no parole hearing for 25 years. (You can be sure he will never be paroled.)
Second, as the police have stated, to inform any future parole hearing of the horrendous nature of Williams’ crimes.
This is the time to renew my argument against publication bans in general. They’re dangerous, under the best of circumstances. Only by full disclosure can fair and impartial justice be assured.
The freedom to publish what is happening in our courts in no privilege conferred on the news media. Rather, it is our essential safeguard against an unjust judicial system.
As our surrogates, the media fulfill the role the individual was able to play in simpler times. Not that the media must publish everything said or shown in court! But it must be out there — in the public realm – and available for examination if the need arises.
To those who wish not to be confronted by the awful evidence of evil behavior, my answer is that it is our duty as mature citizens to accept to know what is happening in our midst.
Only then can we take steps to try to protect or improve our society.