Magnotta trial: What do we know? What will the trial reveal?

An artists' impression of Luka Magnotta is shown at the Montreal Courthouse in Montreal, Monday, September 9, 2014. Delphine Bergeron/Global News

Preliminary hearings are over and counsel is selecting the jury. Day 1 of Luka Magnotta’s first-degree murder trial inches closer.

Here’s a look at what we know going in, what may be revealed over the course of the trial and some questions that may never have an answer.

What are the charges?

Magnotta faces five charges: first-degree murder, committing an indignity to a body, publishing obscene material, criminally harassing the prime minister and MPs, and mailing obscene and indecent material.

He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

What are the possible penalties?

If Magnotta is found guilty of murder the penalties attached to the other charges become moot because a murder conviction comes with a mandatory life sentence. Any other guilty charges would be served concurrently.

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“Life means life. You are in prison for life, and you can only apply for parole after 25 years,” said Solomon Friedman, an Ottawa-based criminal defence lawyer.

Getting parole is anything but guaranteed, and anyone sentenced to life — even if released —will be subject to strict and severe conditions for the rest of their life.

If the jury acquits Magnotta of murder, maximum penalties for the other four charges range from two years to 10 years.

WATCH: Magnotta’s lawyer explains what he’s looking for in a juror

What does the Crown need to prove?

The Crown prosecutors have to convince the jury of Magnotta’s guilt on all charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

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“The criminal harassment charge may be the most interesting,” Friedman said. “You have to prove he intended to engage in conduct for the purpose of, essentially, causing fear.”

Proving an individual is guilty of murder (either first- or second-degree) requires the Crown to go beyond the ordinary level of intent another charge might require.

“For example, intoxication isn’t a defence to most charges in the Criminal Code, but it can reduce murder to manslaughter,” Friedman said.

In other words, the jury will have to hear and see facts proving Magnotta, through his actions, intended to kill the victim before they can find him guilty of murder. For first-degree murder, the Crown will have to convince jurors he planned in advance.

If the Crown doesn’t achieve that, they can ask the jury to convict the accused of a lesser offence, such as manslaughter.

Will Magnotta take the stand?

Whether the accused takes the stand is a tactical decision at the heart of the process. Magnotta does not need to give evidence and has a right to remain silent.

Should he decide to exercise that right, it can’t be held against him; the jury cannot infer anything from the decision.

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It could be weeks before the court finds out whether Magnotta will take the stand.

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“He doesn’t need to decide whether he will testify until the Crown closes their case,” said Michael Spratt, a criminal defence lawyer based in Ottawa. “Having said that, a jury is usually very interested in what an accused person has to say.”

If Magnotta’s counsel presents an affirmative defence (such as intoxication or not criminally responsible), Spratt said he expects the defendant would have to testify to advance that case.

WATCH: Magnotta trial jury selection continues

Will the public find out why this crime happened?

The public often wants to know why something happened or why someone acted the way that person is alleged to have.

“Those questions aren’t always answered in a criminal trial,” Spratt said. “The criminal trial is about proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the offence, not really an explanation for the motives behind an offence.”

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If the public is following this case to find an answer to that question, they may be left unsatisfied, he said.

How long will the trial last?

Magnotta’s trial is expected to last four to six weeks, which falls within the average length of a typical murder trial, according to both criminal defence lawyers.

Without knowing whether the defence will put up any evidence, however, it’s difficult to really say how long the trial will last — and the court will only know what the defence has planned once the Crown rests its case.

Any complications or oddities can extend the trial, and in this case the court is dealing with evidence from outside Canada (evidence was collected in Europe, where Magnotta fled shortly after Jun Lin was killed , and where he was apprehended June 4, 11 days after Lin was last seen).

“Usually, the evidence of the offence goes right up to the point the offence was committed, then it stops at that point,” Friedman said. “But in this case, it seems some of what he was doing afterward could shed light either on his state of mind or on the fact he was the killer.”

WATCH: Letters from Luka Magnotta

What role will the jury play?

When there is a jury involved in a trial, the role of the court divides in two — the judge is responsible for the law, while the jury is tasked with the fact-finding mission.

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The Charter gives anyone charged with an offence carrying a punishment of five years in jail or more the right to request a jury. When it comes to a murder charge, though, the accused has no choice unless the Crown agrees to not have a jury (which is rare).

From the beginning, the judge, who ultimately decides the sentence, gives legal instruction and explains the role of the jury to the people sitting on it, who will decide the verdict.

“The jurors are the judges of fact,” said Spratt. “They are the ones who determine the facts of the case, and the judge will instruct them on what the law is. Then the jury applies their facts to the law.”

How does a jury affect lawyers?

A jury can add an element of theatre to courtrooms, where lawyers try to appeal personally to the men and women tasked with deciding the future of an accused. Conversely, when facing only a judge the case may not rest as much on winning people over.

“When you’re a defence counsel, especially, you may not speak to the jury directly until your closing arguments, but when you’re in front of a jury you have to be acutely aware you have [at least] 12 people watching and scrutinizing,” Spratt said. “So everything I do in front of the jury, I have it in the back of my mind that the jury is watching.”
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The jury for Magnotta’s trial will have 14 individuals and two alternate jurors.

Every word and action is calculated to ensure it doesn’t prejudice a defendant or rub the jury the wrong way, he said.

Another aspect that may change, Friedman said, is the number of objections or legal issues raised with the judge. Each time counsel raises an issue, the jury is dismissed. Done too often, the jury may begin to feel alienated, he said.

“With the jury, perception matters,” Friedman said. “So, same could be said for your cross-examination. You might be more aggressive in front of a judge, but in front of a jury, you don’t want to have them feel badly for an opposing or unfavourable witness.”

In short, lawyers for both sides want the jury to like them and their arguments.

WATCH: Should Luka Magnotta receive mail in prison?

Why did Magnotta plead ‘not guilty’?

Usually, Friedman said, the reason an accused pleads guilty is to gain some advantage – a lesser charge, for example, or a more lenient sentence.

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“Here, there’s really no advantage to gain from pleading guilty to first degree murder,” he said. “You can’t do worse than [a life sentence] after your trial.”

There are examples of people pleading guilty to first-degree murder, including Russell Williams. He pleaded guilty to two counts each of murder, sexual assault and forcible confinement as well as 82 additional charges of break-ins and attempted break-ins.

“There can be some marginal benefits to a plea of guilt, even when the charge is first-degree murder,” Spratt said. “One can be remorseful, accept responsibility or avoid some lengthy publicity. And 25 years down the road, it may play a small factor to the parole board.”

Despite Williams’ guilty plea, the case went to trial at the judge’s insistence to have a full account of the facts. That could well have been the case with Magnotta.

“Trials can be quite important from everyone’s perspective to determine what the exact facts are,” Spratt said.


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