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Stephen Williams (2005)

In the end, the government gets what it wants

Stephen Williams

TORONTO -- There is surely no better measure of the sorry state of our sorry state than this.

Yesterday, in a North York, Ont., courtroom, a senior Crown attorney portentously read aloud from a statement in which a woman who was sexually assaulted 14 years ago by Paul Bernardo seriously and favourably compares him to author Stephen Williams.

Lest you forget, Bernardo is a convicted killer, multiple rapist and dangerous offender. Mr. Williams is a rumpled fellow of 55 who merely wrote about the creep and the case and who until yesterday had not a single criminal conviction to his name.

"At least Bernardo was honest in his rape," prosecutor Sarah Welch said, quoting what the woman wrote in her most recent victim-impact statement. (If Bernardo was a violent serial offender, those he hurt have been turned into serial givers of victim-impact statements.) "He made no pretence that it was anything but. Williams lacks that class. He is nothing less than an exploiting bastard."

How did we get here, to the point where vicious killers and gentle writers are indistinguishable one from the other by rape victims, the agents of government and, I suspect, also by a goodly segment of the population? To the point where the best and most effective weapon in the prosecutorial arsenal has come to be the pain or psychic suffering of a victim of crime or the relatives of a victim of crime?

The answer is doubled-edged, one part forged in what even by an objective standard is the unseemly interest of the Ontario Attorney-General's office in crucifying Mr. Williams, the other born in the ever-rising status increasingly accorded victims.

Here, the two forces have come together in chilly harmony.

Mr. Williams is but one of a group of folks who wrote books about the case of Bernardo and his then wife Karla Homolka. There were at least two others, true-crime style, published upon Bernardo's conviction in the fall of 1995, and a third that was a fictionalized version.

Where Mr. Williams's books -- the first, Invisible Darkness, the second Karla: Pact with the Devil -- differed from all the others is that he did what in my business is called original research. He got his hands on the Crown brief, that collection of witness and victim statements, police interviews and the like that is not considered to belong to the Crown, but rather to the people the Crown represents -- that is, all of us; he was handed the notes of Homolka's psychiatrist by the psychiatrist; he successfully began a lengthy correspondence with Homolka herself.

It was this work that informed Mr. Williams's view that the deal with Homolka was egregious, and led to his harsh criticism of the senior Ontario officials who were its authors.

Karla Homolka now

Again, lest you forget: Homolka's trial was a secret one, and the picture of her participation in the assaults upon Leslie Mahaffy, Kristen French, Homolka's own sister Tammy (all dead) and whatever other young girls the pair could lure to their home to abuse was and remains an edited one.

The videotapes that documented the pair's conduct were never shown publicly at Bernardo's trial by virtue of a judge's order, and rather viewed only by jurors and lawyers.

Furthermore, by order of another judge, the tapes themselves were later destroyed in a secret torching ceremony revealed only after the fact to Ontarians. The best evidence in the case -- particularly if one is interested in judging the deal in which Homolka received 12 years for her role in the deaths of three girls -- was thus never fully revealed and is now forever lost.

Mr. Willams's books go some distance, certainly further than any others, to fill that information void.

The just-ended prosecution was not the government's first go at him.

Based on a lengthy Ontario Provincial Police probe of Invisible Darkness, Mr. Williams was charged with, and then acquitted of, having viewed the restricted videotapes.

In the current case, the effort was more vigorous and certainly more punitive.

Mr. Williams was arrested at his farm when his lawyer, Edward Greenspan, had already indicated he would be happy to surrender himself; he spent a night in jail; originally, he was overcharged, and accused of 97 counts of publication-ban breaches and disobeying a court order. He and his long-time spouse, the writer Marsha Boulton, were even charged with a firearms offence -- careless storage, when the law specifically allows those who live on farms to keep their rifles handy for predator control. In addition, the Attorney-General also brought a civil action against Mr. Williams, meaning he was required to have two sets of lawyers working on his behalf.

As Mr. Greenspan, who has worked pro bono for Mr. Williams, snapped yesterday in court, "This is a case of administrative vengeance!"

Technically, at the heart of things here was that Mr. Williams used the real names of some of the Bernardo-Homolka victims on a website that was only ever marginally available and only up and running for a short time. Once he was notified he had breached the bans, he swiftly shut down the site.

Nonetheless, as was implicitly acknowledged yesterday in his guilty plea, Mr. Williams was careless or provocative in the use of that banned information. He was not alone, for other writers and other publications have also used some of the protected names here and there, without being prosecuted. But then, none of these writers is also a staunch critic of the government.

Regardless, the practical impact upon victims of what Mr. Williams did was minimal, if not zero. Many of the few who visited the site were police officers and reporters. Certainly, at the time the OPP informed Bernardo's victims about the potential breach of their privacy, none of them reported having been identified as a result of the site.

Alas, the government had the opening it was so thirsting for, the chance to cloak its shameful treatment of one of its staunchest critics in the robes of the unassailable victim. To quote Ms. Welch, "Taken down to its essence, this case is about respect for the rule of law and the protection of victims of crime."

It was nothing of the sort, ever.

But in the end, government gets what government wants, and so there was the woman Bernardo raped so long ago suggesting her rapist was more honest -- a better person -- than a man who wrote about him, and there was the agent of the government cheerfully using it.

As Mr. Greenspan said, "We have left the world of sanity for the world of hysteria."

Before the proceeding began yesterday, I wandered the very modern courthouse looking for a coffee joint, and at one point walked through a door to a police area. "Hi Christie," said a disembodied voice; the halls are clearly monitored by cameras. The voice probably belonged to a nice police officer who recognized me. It all feels less benign now than it would have the day before.


Leaky Bernardo bans fan new disputes

TORONTO - The Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General may have violated two of the same publication bans imposed in the Paul Bernardo trial that it invoked to successfully prosecute writer Stephen Williams.

The website of the Ontario Court of Appeal, which is administered by the province, discloses information that could identify one of Bernardo's sexual assault victims.

The information, which has been accessible in online format to the public for nearly five years, is contained in the court's March 2000 written reasons for dismissing Bernardo's appeal. The decision of Justices John Laskin, Michael Moldaver and James MacPherson refers to the sexual assault victim by her actual first and last initial.

There are other identifying characteristics, including the woman's age and her link to Bernardo. The assault is described by the court in extremely graphic detail.

The Criminal Code states that any information which "could" identify someone protected by a publication ban is a breach of the court order. In addition to the Court of Appeal website, some of the names protected by the various court orders can still be accessed from online databases that contain newspaper articles from the Bernardo trial in 1995.

Two other books about the trial, which are in print today, include the names of women stalked by Bernardo. Their identities are also protected by a publication ban ordered by Justice Patrick LeSage when he declared Bernardo a dangerous offender in 1995.

One of the books is scheduled to come out with an updated version in June, just before Karla Homolka is released from prison. The book's online promotional material promises that the updated edition will be the "uncensored" story of the crimes of Bernardo and Homolka.

The names of the stalking victims are also included in an article about the Bernardo trial on the website of The Canadian Encyclopedia, which is funded in part by Heritage Canada.

Karla and Jane Doe

Karla with Jane Doe, circa June 7, 1991. Photograph by Karla using the automatic timer device

As well, the online legal database service Quicklaw, which is owned by LexisNexis Canada and is regularly used by thousands of lawyers, may also be in breach of the publication bans. A pre-trial ruling by LeSage, in May 1995, identifies the victim Jane Doe by name, potentially breaching the judge's own order three weeks earlier that banned any publication of her identity. The ruling is still accessible on Quicklaw today.

Williams, who wrote two books about the Bernardo and Homolka trials, pleaded guilty last week to one count of disobeying court orders. Names of several of the women either stalked or sexually assaulted by Bernardo, were 'inadvertently' posted on a website set up by the author. The names were available for less than 24 hours and the website was pulled down immediately by Williams after he was notified it may contain banned information.

A police affidavit filed in court said the banned information was posted in an area of "dead links" on the website.

The Crown has refused to answer whether any actual members of the public may have accessed these links before the website was closed by Williams.

Last week, after Williams pleaded guilty to the single criminal count, provincial attorney general Michael Bryant described the award-winning writer as a "serial trafficker in the human misery of victims."

The public comments were made at the same time as ministry lawyers were working behind the scenes to resolve a civil suit filed by the attorney general against Williams, on behalf of the "people of Ontario."

The proposed settlement would not have involved any admission of wrongdoing by Williams and it may now be on hold because of Bryant's comments.

"I don't know this man from Adam," Williams said Monday, describing the attorney general's verbal attack on Friday as "intemperate and inaccurate." He is talking to his civil lawyer.

A spokesman for the ministry said Monday that if anyone has information of a breach of a publication ban they should report it to police.

The spokesman added that Bryant "stands by his comments" about Williams.


Pursuing Williams

Karla Homolka

Karla: St. Catharines' General Hospital, January 6, 1993 from "A pact with the devil"

The sledgehammer has landed on the ant. After authorities spent years and millions of dollars in pursuit of Stephen Williams, author of two controversial books on serial killer Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, Mr. Williams pleaded guilty yesterday to breaching a court order by publishing on-line the names of people the couple had sexually assaulted. He pleaded guilty to one criminal count. The police had originally laid almost 100 charges.

Mr. Williams's books severely criticized the Crown and police handling of the Bernardo case, and the energy with which the authorities went after him was so disproportionate it suggested this criticism had spurred them on. In 2003, the Ontario Provincial Police raided his home and threw him in jail for a night. Two months later, police raided his home and seized not only his computers but his wife's, including backup files of an unfinished novel.

Yesterday, as Mr. Williams paid the legal price for his action, it was clear the vehemence had not ebbed. Ontario Attorney-General Michael Bryant attacked Mr. Williams as a "criminal" and "serial trafficker in the human misery of victims." Even now, the state's sledgehammer won't rest.


Police accused of being on vendetta

Author of books about Bernardo, Homolka's crimes pleads guilty

TORONTO - Police and the Ontario government were accused yesterday of seeking "vengeance" against Stephen Williams because of the extraordinary resources used to prosecute the controversial writer.

The allegations were made by the writer and his lawyer

Edward Greenspan after a highly unusual sentencing hearing where Williams agreed to plead guilty to one count of disobeying a court order and received a suspended sentence and three years probation.

Williams also was required to testify under oath yesterday and give an undertaking that he will never possess "Crown brief" material related to the prosecution of Paul Bernardo or Karla Homolka without a court order.

Williams is believed to be the first writer or reporter in Canada to receive a criminal record for breaching a publication ban.

In her submissions to Justice Derek Hogg, lead crown lawyer Sarah Welch used equally strong language to condemn Williams. She said he had no respect for "the rule of law" and highlighted a victim impact statement by one of Bernardo's sexual assault victims that said the writer was of worse character than the serial rapist and murderer.

"It was Paul Bernardo that ruined their lives, it was not Stephen Williams. To try to suggest that in a court of law was an obscenity," Greenspan said.

In 2003, Williams was charged with 97 counts of violating court orders or publication bans after the names of 15 women, who were either sexual-assault or stalking victims of Bernardo, were published on a Web site set up by the author.

Williams pulled down the site 24 hours later, once he learned it contained banned material. The links on the Web site, which contained the names, were in an "under construction" section. It isn't clear if they were seen by anyone other than the Crown and police.

As part of the plea bargain, the Crown also agreed to withdraw a civil suit filed by Ontario's attorney-general. The lawsuit was seeking damages from Williams and a declaration he was in wrongful possession of the Bernardo Crown brief.

It isn't illegal to possess this material and in law, it is considered "the property of the people," Greenspan said.

Williams had been previously charged for an alleged breach of a court order in his book Invisible Darkness. He was acquitted of that charge in November 2000.

Invisible Darkness and the book Karla: A Pact with the Devil, are both critical of police and the Crown for the plea bargain deal that will result in Homolka's release from prison in July.

Williams also outlined evidence that suggested Vince Bevan, who headed the task force investigating the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, rushed into a plea bargain deal with Homolka because Toronto police were about to arrest Bernardo for a series of sexual assaults. Bevan is now the chief of police in Ottawa.

"If Stephen had written a book that was favourable to the police or favourable to the Crown, and not as critical as it was, we would not be here today. He would never have been charged," Greenspan said.

Greenspan noted that a 1995 Macleans article that names three women stalked by Bernardo is easily accessible on the Internet, yet the Crown is not investigating the owner of that Web site (the article is on the Canadian Encyclopedia Web site, a free service financially supported by Heritage Canada).

Welch read out a 53-minute-long Agreed Statement of Facts during the sentencing hearing, naming many of the sexual assault victims and reciting at length how they had been attacked by Bernardo. She suggested repeatedly that they were re-victimized by Williams as she read out portions of their victim impact statement.

"The moment I was arrested, police started phoning these women. None of them was aware of the Web site until police told them," Williams said. He added there was no evidence the victims were publicly identified because their names were briefly posted on the Web site.

"These officers lied to the women. They didn't tell them the Web site was only up briefly," Williams said.