Dan Zakreski: As a profession it's going to be very interesting because it poses some very serious problems for us if the judgment stands. If confronted with something like that in the future do we take our stories to the judiciary for vetting, to ask a judge 'Is this what you really meant? It seems obvious but we don't really know.'
The StarPhoenix was found guilty Friday of violating a publication ban after publishing a November 1999 article that included details of how Helen Montgomery was murdered in her North Battleford home.
Judge Mary Ellen Wright fined the newspaper $3,500, plus a 20 per cent victims' surcharge.
Dan Zakreski, a former StarPhoenix reporter who wrote the story, was also found guilty, but was given an absolute discharge with no conditions attached.
This means he will not have a criminal record.
"I get to tell my kids 'Dad's not going to jail.' That's a big thing. I never thought I was, but try to explain that to your family," said Zakreski outside Queen's Bench Court in Saskatoon.
Friday's decision was handed down in Saskatoon after a two-day trial in Battleford last month.
More than three years ago, Zakreski wrote a lengthy article about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the justice system. As part of the story, Zakreski provided a brief description of how Montgomery, who ran an open custody home, was stabbed to death by notorious teenage killer Serena Nicotine and another teenage girl.
Nicotine had been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. The story acknowledged that a publication ban prevented publication of exactly what happened the night Montgomery died because the case against Nicotine's co-accused was not resolved.
Zakreski and The StarPhoenix maintained the publication ban did not cover the details included in the story because Zakreski learned of the information at an earlier court hearing and through interviews he conducted.
But in her written judgment, Justice Wright said the facts subject to the publication ban "were identical in virtually all respects" to the details in the news story.
She further said that the spirit and intent of the publication ban were clear -- "to ensure a fair trial for the co-accused and to avoid the potential contamination of any jury pool." By publishing some of the details of Montgomery's murder, Wright said the co-accused's right to a fair trial may have been at stake.
Nonetheless, Wright praised Zakreski's story, calling it an "excellent article" that brought to the public's attention the issue of fetal alcohol syndrome.
The co-accused, Catherine McKenzie, never did stand trial, opting instead to plead guilty to second-degree murder. She and Nicotine are serving life sentences for Montgomery's murder.
OFFSITE: CBC news July 31, 2014 Catherine McKenzie wins day parole
Zakreski, while relieved with the absolute discharge, said in court before sentencing that he has found the process to be "professionally frustrating" and admitted that he still struggles with what he should have done differently.
"I still don't get it," he said outside the court. "We didn't agonize over (the story). It wasn't a judgment call. It was just a story and that was an element of the story. We believed we were respecting the order and the judge thought otherwise," he added.
Crown prosecutor Dan O'Hanlon, who asked the judge to fine The StarPhoenix $5,000 plus the victims' surcharge, agreed with Zakreski's absolute discharge. He said the fine will serve as a deterrent to the media when tempted to breach publication bans.
"Madam Justice Wright's decision said the decision by The StarPhoenix was in conjunction with Mr. Zakreski but they had the ultimate responsibility," he said outside the court house.
Defence lawyer Grant Currie, who said the newspaper and Zakreski were not surprisingly disappointed, believes this decision will have a negative effect on court reporting because it will be more difficult to determine which information is covered by a publication ban.
"It is necessarily going to require the members of the media to take a second look and maybe a third look and to take some calculated risks as to whether they can go ahead and publish certain information," he said after the decision was rendered.
Zakreski, a reporter in Saskatchewan for more than 20 years who now works for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, agreed.
"As a profession it's going to be very interesting because it poses some very serious problems for us if the judgment stands. If confronted with something like that in the future do we take our stories to the judiciary for vetting, to ask a judge 'Is this what you really meant? It seems obvious but we don't really know.'
"I don't think it was the intent of the court to scare us away from covering things but that's the financial reality today if you're talking fines," he said.
O'Hanlon said publication bans are to be expected and Friday's judgment was clear.
"The message it sends is that when a court makes an order it has to be adhered to. I think as well if an order is not understood then the court should be consulted for direction or clarification," he said.
Jason Warick ran into snags with Klassens await day in court.
The Big Iceberg: this day no one has tackled Social Services, whose workers have amazing powers. While many social workers are ethical people doing the best they can under trying conditions, some abuse their power to apprehend children, others hae been known to manufacture evidence, hiding behind court orders. They also have the power to seal or release files at will, knowing the courts will back them up. Susan Paseika, Liz Newton, Diane Ens and Carol Bunko-Ruys are two who should be seriously looked at.