PETRUK: Tone and context are crucial in court case

Despite what you may have read this week, a B.C. Supreme Court judge was out of line last month when he said he prefers his own Vancouver bed to a Kamloops hotel room at the outset of what was supposed to have been a two-week rape trial.

Justice Peter Leask made the comment during a conversation in open court with lawyers about how the case would proceed. He also suggested the prosecutor not call two of her witnesses and rolled his eyes while she attempted to plead her case.

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I was in the courtroom when it happened. It was strange, to say the least -- not just the words, but the atmosphere. Leask appeared to be talking down to the prosecutor and the court clerk. When it was time for the court to read the charges to the accused, a 90-year-old man alleged to have sexually assaulted his daughter in Adams Lake decades ago, Leask flicked his wrist down at the clerk and said, simply, "Go."

It felt ugly.

The charges against the elderly man were stayed by the Crown on the second day of the trial for reasons unrelated to Leask's conduct.

After reading my coverage of the bizarre conversation, UBC law professor Benjamin Perrin took it upon himself to file a complaint about Leask's conduct to the Canadian Judicial Council.

Perrin called me and asked if the remarks Leask made were on the record. I told him yes. He asked about the tone of the conversation and the atmosphere in the courtroom. I told him the tone was borderline aggressive and the atmosphere was strange.

This week, after reviewing a transcript of the proceeding, Vancouver Province columnist Gordon Clark penned an opinion piece in defence of Leask -- a sometimes-controversial judge who has been censured in the past for his conduct on the bench.

Clark accused me of taking Leask's remarks out of context and torquing up the judge's expressed preference to sleep in his own Lower Mainland house to make it seem as though he wanted the trial to wrap up quickly so he could go home.

He did want to go home. Leask said as much. He indicated the B.C. Supreme Court judiciary was "shorthanded" and suggested he could get more work done in Vancouver than in Kamloops. He also felt it necessary to mention his bed preference, which still seems odd, especially given the nature of the trial.

After a judge makes comments like that, it is impossible to consider any trial-management decision they make without that context.

Leask's tone seemed to be almost one of belittlement to the prosecutor and the court clerk. He was talking down to them -- the only two women in the courtroom. Tone, though, does not come across in transcribed pages.

Clark thought he could figure it out by reading the transcript.

He did find some things I had missed. For instance, Leask at one point said he'd be happy to return to Kamloops for the trial's second week. It is laid out in the transcript, but I did not hear those words. I was probably scrambling to scribble something in my notebook at the time.

Perrin withdrew his complaint against Leask within hours of Clark's column being posted. The sister of the alleged victim in the sexual-assault trial told me she will carry on with her complaint against Leask.

I spoke to Clark at length last week, while he was bouncing the idea of the column around inside his head. I defended my position. He told me it was an opinion piece and we agreed to disagree.

He took issue with my description of Leask suggesting the Crown shorten its case. Clark claimed I took a non-issue and applied it to two potentially relevant Crown witnesses. Clark felt it necessary to mention a separate witness who was never expected by either side to have any bearing on the trial -- or even show up.

Clark was confused, which is understandable of someone lacking context attempting to draw inferences from pages and pages of a court transcript.

During my conversation with Clark, he told me he had been "tipped off" about the transcript by someone suggesting he review it. He expressed concern about "beating up" a reporter who was simply reporting what happened in a courtroom, but maintained I had erred. What he failed to mention was that his wife is employed as a judge, drawing a six-figure salary comparable to that of Leask.

Who tipped Clark off and suggested he look at the transcript? I doubt it was Crown prosecutor Katie Bouchard or defence lawyer Matt Ford. The court clerk at whom Leask pretentiously commanded and flicked his wrist? Highly unlikely, in my opinion. Other than me, a deputy sheriff and the accused, that accounts for everyone in the courtroom but Leask.

I am not a conspiratorial person. Though I have listened to many a Coast to Coast AM broadcast in my 33 years, I like to trust the process and give benefits of doubt whenever possible. But there is something fishy about the journalist husband of a judge who writes a column defending a judge on a tip without mentioning his immediate connection to the judiciary.

To borrow a page from Leask's playbook, allow me to announce my intention to disclose something fully: I used to be married to a lawyer. When we were together, it would have been inappropriate for me to have written an opinion piece about the alleged conduct of another lawyer. If, for some reason, I had, I like to think I would have let the reader know my close relationship to someone in the profession.

I asked Clark who tipped him off.

Understandably, he would not say. I did not expect he would. He did say it was a lawyer who thought he should look into it. He also said he debated with his editors whether to disclose his intimate connection to the judiciary in the column about Leask's conduct on the bench. He said they decided not to mention it.

The bottom line remains this: Clark wasn't there last month when Leask made an inappropriate comment and suggested Bouchard speed things up.

I was. I felt the strange atmosphere of the courtroom and heard the belittling tone in Leask's voice.

He was out of line.

© Kamloops This Week


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