VANCOUVER – A lawyer for a British Columbia man convicted of killing three women and a teenage girl says his client deserves a new trial because the judge made disparaging remarks about defence counsel that were only made public after a sentence was imposed.
Cody Legebokoff was given life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years by a Prince George, B.C., judge, for the first-degree murders of 15-year-old Loren Leslie, 23-year-old Natasha Montgomery and Jill Stuchenko and Cynthia Maas, who were both 35.
His lawyer Eric Gottardi told the B.C. Court of Appeal on Wednesday that despite the evidence against Legebokoff, the appearance of unfairness at trial means the case must be heard again.
“This is a horrific case with overwhelming Crown evidence. This is the kind of case that would be easy to dismiss an appeal. We’re saying there’s nothing wrong with the verdict. But that’s not what this appeal is about. This appeal is about the system and the public confidence in the system,” he told a three-judge panel.
“This was a slam-dunk Crown case. The judge should have bent over backwards to ensure the accused had a fair trial, and he didn’t. This verdict cannot be allowed to stand on that basis.”
His argument hinged on the judge’s rejection of a defence application in 2012 to have the trial moved to Vancouver. The written reasons for the ruling were only released after Legebokoff was convicted and sentenced in 2014.
Justice Glen Parrett said in those reasons that Legebokoff’s counsel had exaggerated and distorted evidence in the application to have the trial moved. He described the defence lawyer’s arguments as “misleading” and a “recasting of reality,” said Gottardi.
He said his client should have been made aware before the trial that the judge thought his lawyer’s behaviour was unethical. Gottardi said he was not arguing that his client faced actual prejudice, but rather the appearance of unfairness amounts to a miscarriage of justice.
All three judges on the panel grilled Gottardi on his argument, questioning whether trial judges should be required to reveal every concern they have about lawyers’ behaviour.
“It seems to me for your argument to hold together, there must be an affirmative duty on a trial judge to express those concerns any time they arise,” said Justice David Frankel.
Crown lawyer David Layton said it’s crucial that Gottardi hasn’t asserted definitively that Legebokoff would have sought other counsel or brought a bias application to remove the judge if he had disclosed his criticisms earlier.
Layton said Gottardi’s argument is merely that Legebokoff was denied the opportunity to “consider his options,” and that doesn’t meet the high legal test for perception of unfairness.
“The trial judge didn’t have any duty to disclose this information any earlier than he did,” Layton told the court.
Legebokoff’s trial heard that there was considerable physical evidence linking him to the murders.
Legebokoff’s clothing contained the DNA of Montgomery and Maas, while DNA matching Stuchenko was found in Legebokoff’s apartment. The trial heard that identification belonging to Leslie and a blood-stained pipe wrench and knife were also found in the man’s truck.
Family members of Leslie and Maas listened quietly in the courtroom on Wednesday.
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