Canadian author Stephen Williams joined the company of persecuted writers in global trouble spots yesterday when he won a grant from Human Rights Watch, an international organization that supports victims of political persecution.
By placing Canada alongside countries such as Myanmar, Peru and Sierra Leone, the award sparked debate between supporters of Mr. Williams and those who call him a literary provocateur.
The $5,000 grant is intended to help him defray the legal cost of defending himself against criminal and civil litigation over two books he wrote about serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka -- Invisible Darkness and Karla.
"Everyone should be embarrassed that an author could have the police raid his home and be put in jail overnight for something he has written," said Chris Waddell, a journalist and spokesman for PEN Canada.
"It isn't something people would think could happen to someone in this country."
Mr. Williams was nominated by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.
Human Rights Watch spokesman Marci Allani said yesterday that Mr. Williams qualified because he is a victim of "a suppression of free expression. This grant is given to writers who have been politically persecuted and are in financial need. If the government there didn't do anything wrong, they shouldn't be worried about anyone who writes about it."
Mr. Williams was acquitted in 2000 on two charges of disobeying a court order sealing videotapes that depicted the torture of schoolgirls Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy. Last year, police laid two new charges of disobeying a court order, as well as 95 charges that alleged he published the names of rape victims in his books and on a website. The Ontario Crown has also launched a civil action against Mr. Williams claiming he was in wrongful possession of material used in the Bernardo prosecution.
The grant has aroused anger in some quarters.
"To be charitable, I suspect this organization was ill-informed and ought to have spoken first to the parents of those murdered children -- as I did," said former Ontario attorney-general James Flaherty, whose government pursued charges against Mr. Williams.
"They might also want to wait for our courts to deal with these cases before they start bestowing awards," Mr. Flaherty said. "This causes me great concern. I don't know this group, but I can't imagine that anyone who is informed about the facts surrounding Homolka and Bernardo and Mr. Williams's publications would be bestowing an award on him as though he is some sort of politically maligned person."
But Mr. Williams said Mr. Flaherty's grasp of the situation is typical of his critics. "It is a total misunderstanding of what has gone on," he said. "Of all the criminal charges against me, none of them have anything to do with the Mahaffys, the Frenches, their lawyers or any crime-scene photographs."
When Ontario Provincial Police raided his farm last year, they seized computers and files belonging to both Mr. Williams and his wife, author Marsha Boulton. Most have not been returned.
"I feel my life has been threatened because of the destruction wreaked upon me and Marsha, who has nothing to do with any of this," Mr. Williams said. "They have levelled all of their resources at me, both civilly and criminally, and they are trying to destroy us.
"It would seem to me that this is a serious black mark on the Ontario government and the Ministry of the Attorney-General and Canada generally," Mr. Williams added. "On the international stage, they have now been lumped in with repressive, totalitarian regimes such as those in China, Iran and Nigeria -- and numerous others guilty of stunning human-rights violations and indignities to free speech and open justice."
PHOTO CAPTION: Stephen Williams, a writer, has so far resisted the orders of an Ontario court to reveal his sources on the content of a videotape of two sex murders. Mr. Williams says that he has not seen the tape.
TORONTO - Stephen Williams, the author of a best-selling crime book sees the day coming when he will be called to a witness stand and ordered to identity who gave him precise details of a gory sex murder scene in the tale.
"As soon as I refuse to do that, they are going to toss me in jail," the author of "Invisible. Darkness" (Bantam) said in a telephone interview from his farm north of here.
In Canada, a country often called politely authoritarian, advocates for freedom of the press hope the Williams case will set a precedent for the kind of reporter's shield legislation that spread in the United States in the 1970's. Today, 30, states have laws that give reporters varying degrees of protection to shield their sources from public identification.
"This is one case where Canada should follow its neighbor to the south; you can't have vigorous reporting without laws protecting sources" said Tom Goldstein dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism.
"If you can't protect sources and the sources can't be assured that they will be protected, they hesitate to talk."
Normally, Canadian prosecutors avoid confrontations on shild issues and the murders in question have already resulted in convictions and jail time.
But in Canada where the founding motto in 1867 was "peace, order and good government" courts histoically have not believed there is much privileged about the relationship between a reporter and a source.
"There has never been a case in Canada where a journalist has been excused from answering a question about a source," said Alan N. Young, who is defending Mr. Williams.
And the prospects for setting a precedent do not look good. Mr. Williams was charged with two counts of disobeying a judge's order, and lost his motions to have the case dismissed. The charges stem from the belief that Mr. Williams saw a videotape of two sex murders that a judge had barred from the public.
Pouring over Mr. Williams 657-page book, detectives say they came up with 27 passages that they believe were based on watching the tapes. Mr. Williams has denied seeing the tapes, a denial he repeated in the interview. He said he had gotten almost all the details from material available to the public and would not say where he got the rest.
In court last fall, the government stated that 69 people authorized by the court, most prosecutors, had reviewed the restricted videotapes. Mr. Williams commented "It would be professional suicide for anyone who had access to the tapes to show them" to unauthorized people. They would lose everything they had - lawyers would be disbarred, doctors would have their licences revoked, cops would lose their pensions and be fired."
So far, the Ontario judge, David Fairgrieve, has ruled that Mr. Williams' book can be used as evidence against him. He has deferred ruling on the issue of journalistic priviledge until it comes up in trial. Prosecutors in the case declined to comment. David Paciocco, a former prosecutor, said Canadian courts "have a general aversion to recognizing privileges."
Mr. Paciocco, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said prosecutors generally tried to work around privilege claims. "No one wants to get into a showdown with a stubborn journalist, one who might go to jail to protect a source," he said.
"Court seals and publication bans rarely serve the public interest. There is no doubt that the public is fascinated by the lurid and grotesque details of stories in the news. Providing these details is not what we mean by serving the public interest. The public -- now and ten years from now -- must be satisfied that justice was served.
Destroying the Homolka tapes was a crime against the public interest, an act which pandered to sensitivities of the overly-sensitive. Evidence which has potential relevance in further court proceedings, or which might be of interest to historians must not be destroyed. And those who wish to study and understand horrific events must not be silenced."
- Sheila Steele injusticebusters.com
"On an aesthetic level, Karla is almost unique in our literature. It is an extraordinary act of the imagination brought to bear on the facts."
- Professor Barry Callaghan
"The true crime is, in the hands of artists like Truman Capote and Stephen Williams, a kind of poetry, a kind of austere grand guignol, exuding gaudy horror."
- George Elliott Clarke in the Halifax Chronicle Herald
"I truly consider Stephen Williams to be the Norman Mailer of Canada."
- Peter C. Newman
"Williams book, [Karla].... is possessed of a moral authority...Karla continues in Williams' inimitable vein. It is not light reading, and it exacts attention and discomfort from its readers. As such, it is an imperative contribution to a school of writing that has mangled Capote by way of Yeats, asserting that the best 'lack all conviction'; 'the worst...passionate intensity.'.... "It asks...that we may, as progressive citizens, be willing to extricate our loathing of Homolka from a pure understanding of jurisprudence....Williams' disdain for the way in which Homolka has been characterized by pressured psychiatrists whose vision of her serves only the public, not impartial analysis - is, however uncomfortably, righteous. Williams' argument suggests, persuasively, that the real deal with the devil is done...regardless of our rational desire to 'exterminate the brute.' If A Pact with the Devil reads as a uniquely perverse restatement of Dante's mad love for Beatrice, so be it. I do not believe that Williams - in a sentiment he attributes to Green Ribbon Task Force Inspector Vince Bevan - feels that he has 'to have her.'... Williams is continuing to ask for our ear, to listen to and look at what this woman did, and how such information has changed us, irrevocably."
- Lynn Crosbie in the Toronto Star, February 16, 2003
"Williams understood that a unique and terrible psychopathology could be at work here and, in the tradition of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, he was determined to make its acquaintance. Karla is about what Williams learned and it also lets us in on what a difficult task he had.
Karla is no slap-dash quickie aimed at culling sales from those with prurient interest in the degradation and murder of young women. It is investigative journalism at its finest, exposing how the police, Crown and certain psychiatrists have a lot of explaining to do.
For Williams', Danson's renewed suggestion of criminal law breaking must have made him feel a little like he is living under a Canadian fatwah. He has already been investigated once by police and the Crown, which brought serious criminal charges against him after the publication of his first book. After a long fight, the charges were dropped but the prosecution nearly cost Williams and his wife, Marsha Boulton, their Ontario farm.
Williams conclusions are based in part on correspondence with his subject (he is the only journalist to have corresponded with her). Homolka's letters expose her as a gifted and, therefore, formidable woman, remorseless, self-centered and, I am convinced, quite deadly.
I am at loss to understand how censoring a book that speaks the truth does anything to enhance the memory of Tammy and Leslie and Kristen. I have always believed that if there was a moment when the girls knew they were going to die, they might have thought or perhaps even spoke the words, 'You'll never get away with this.'
Rejecting Williams's sober, thoughtful and well-researched analysis of how Homolka got a future is in my opinion disrespectful to the memory of her victims. Would the girls themselves be satisfied with the judicial outcome? I think not."
- Trish Wood in the Book Review section of The Globe and Mail, March 9, 2003
"Laurie Greenwood, at Laurie Greenwood's Volume II Bookstore, has no plans to stock the book. 'Our customers like good mysteries and good fiction and non-fiction, and it was my decision not to offer this book."
- Marc Horton in the Edmonton Journal, February 23, 2003
"Williams uses letters from Homolka herself, unreleased psychiatric assessments and police statements along with other courses to craft a controversial account of what happened behind the scenes to land a sweetheart deal for a woman with a lengthy list of murders and rapes to her credit. He lets the copious research he has carefully compiled speak for itself and does an especially good job of presenting an honest portrayal of Homolka.
- Jeffery Simpson in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, March 9, 2003
"He makes a strong case for Bevan having bungled the investigation and then, to protect his own career, concocting a battered-woman/sexual-sadist-victim persona for Homolka in order to make her plea bargain palatable to the public."
- Douglas J. Johnston in the Winnipeg Free Press, February 23, 2003
"Karla is a nightmarish account of police, prosecutorial, judicial and prison bungling that should disturb everyone....this is solid investigative journalism uncovering ineptitude on a massive scale....The contradictions uncovered by Williams are astounding."
- Jim McNulty in the Vancouver Province, March 16, 2003