Big Mouth Strikes Again
Chief’s words in Zhang case a problem, lawyers say
High-profile press conferences tied to arrests called a growing concern
By JAMES RUSK
Saturday, July 24, 2004
A senior policeman’s intemperate remarks at a press conference announcing the arrest of a suspect in the slaying of Cecilia Zhang are a prime example of a growing problem, a veteran defence lawyer said yesterday.
High-profile press conferences at the time of an arrest, at which police officers profess their belief that the crime has been solved and the perpetrator found, are undermining the fabric of the justice system, Toronto lawyer Brian Greenspan said in an interview.
But Peel Region Police Chief Noel Catney, who on Thursday held a picture of Min Chen, the man accused in Cecilia’s death, and described him as a child murderer, did not back down in the face of a several lawyers’ comments expressing alarm about the damage his actions might have on Mr. Chen’s right to a fair trial.
“I stand by the comments I made at the press conference,” the chief said in a statement.
“Historically every five, 10 or 15 years, we are presented by a case that is both unique and unusual, such as this one. I believe that when we are confronted with these investigations, which have an immense impact upon our community, we must be more candid. This case qualifies in that regard.”
The chief’s statement added he believes he was expressing the sentiment of the majority of the community and of the Zhang family.
The statement addressed the issue of the potential impact on a trial only indirectly. “As chief of police, I am deeply committed to the judicial process, and it would never be my intent to adversely affect anyone’s right to a fair trial or hearing,” it said.
But defence lawyers said the chief’s remarks could make it difficult to empanel an impartial jury to hear the Chen case.
Defence lawyer Todd White said Chief Catney “is a reputable, powerful, influential person whose opinion can seep into a potential juror’s mind,” and that for a police chief to get involved in a trial by press conference “totally violates the presumption of innocence.”
Mr. White added that “the most offensive thing that I found was that he and his fellow police officers were totally close-lipped about what the evidence was. That’s something they sometimes can rightfully comment on. But they mentioned nothing about the evidence.. . . We’re just going to say this particular person is guilty.”
Mr. Greenspan, a past president of both the Criminal Lawyers Association and the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers, said that, for the public, the natural inference from the statement is that the police have the perpetrator. “Therefore, the trial almost becomes an irrelevancy in terms of the public perception of what has occurred.”
He added that “we all have functions within the system, and these press conferences staged by the police demonstrably involve them in parts of the system to which they really have no entitlement to participate.”
And the problem with press conferences has been getting worse, he said. “I think it has increased enormously. I think the police in particular were far more circumspect a decade ago.”
David Paciocco, a criminal-law professor at the University of Ottawa, said that “from the perspective of a former prosecutor, you would prefer that police not make statements like this.”
While there could be defence motions to change venue or challenge jurors, they would have only a small technical impact on a trial. Such statements by a senior police officer could have a major practical impact on the prosecution of the case, he said.
“If you [a defence lawyer] are cross-examining witnesses and you ask them if they have heard the comment, you’re letting out the possibility that it has influenced them in some way, that it has hardened their evidence, that it may cause any doubts they might have had to dissipate. It’s dangerous.”
When are police going to learn to shut-up. So much for this case being tried in Toronto. Maybe they can move the trial to Sudbury – I’m sure the Zhang’s will love the four hour commute every day.