Paul Bernardo, whose very name became synonymous with sadistic sexual perversion, is expected to plead for release on Wednesday by arguing he has done what he could to improve himself during his 25 years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement.
Designated a dangerous offender, Bernardo, 54, became eligible for parole in February but has so far not been allowed beyond the confines of his maximum security prison in eastern Ontario.
Bernardo’s parole hearing at the Bath Institution is expected to attract numerous observers, most of whom will have to watch via a videolink. The hearing also comes almost two weeks after the prosecution withdrew a weapon-possession charge against him related to the discovery of a screw attached to a ballpoint pen handle in his cell.
Defence lawyer Fergus (Chip) O’Connor did not respond Tuesday to a request to discuss his client’s bid for freedom. However, at the aborted weapon trial this month, he outlined the pitch Bernardo was expected to make to the National Parole Board panel.
WATCH: Courtroom sketch artist Pam Davies reveals what it’s like to illustrate some of Canada’s highest-profile cases, including the trial of Paul Bernardo.
“He’s as horrified as you and I are at what he did,” O’Connor said. “I expect that he will take full responsibility, express remorse, and he appears to be sincere in that.”
While isolation has limited available programming, Bernardo has made a “determined effort not to make up for what he’s done – for that can never be done – but to improve himself” and has been of good behaviour in “very hard conditions” of confinement, O’Connor said.
Bernardo’s crimes over several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of which he videotaped, sparked widespread terror and revulsion.
Among them, Bernardo and his then-wife Karla Homolka kidnapped, tortured and killed Leslie Mahaffy, 14, of Burlington, Ont., in June 1991 at their home in Port Dalhousie, Ont., before dismembering her body, encasing her remains in cement and dumping them in a nearby lake. Dubbed the “Scarborough rapist,” Bernardo also tortured and killed Kristen French, 15, of St. Catharines, Ont., in April 1992 after keeping her captive for three days.
Bernardo was ultimately convicted in 1995 of the first-degree murders of the two teens and numerous sexual assaults. He was given life without parole eligibility until he had served 25 years since his arrest in early 1993.
Tim Danson, long-time lawyer for the girls’ families, would not discuss Bernardo’s parole bid.
“For a variety of very sensitive reasons, neither I nor the families will be making any public comments until after the hearing,” Danson said on Tuesday.
O’Connor conceded his client was reviled for his “horrific crimes.” Still, he has “loving parents” who visit him regularly, and the parole board will take into consideration his behaviour in prison and whether he still poses a danger to the community, the lawyer said.
“Their decision will be not how much he should suffer, but does he present a risk,” O’Connor said. “The issue is not just desserts; the issue is risk.”
O’Connor has also noted that Bernardo was realistic about his prospects of gaining parole.
The odds are against Bernardo’s early release given his crimes. Overall, authorities say only three in 10 inmates win parole on first try.
“Not all lifers will be granted parole,” Correctional Service Canada notes. “Some may never be released…because they continue to represent too great a risk to reoffend.”
Bernardo’s parole bid comes against a backdrop of controversy over the unrelated prison transfer of another convicted child killer, Terri-Lynne McClintic.
VIDEO: Paul Bernardo’s lawyer confronted outside courthouse
Recent word that McClintic, who helped her boyfriend Michael Rafferty kidnap, rape, and kill eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford in Woodstock, Ont., in 2008., had been moved to an Indigenous-centric prison in Saskatchewan known as a healing lodge sparked an uproar that reached the House of Commons. The Conservative opposition jumped on the issue as proof the Liberal government was soft on crime.
In response, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale asked Correctional Service Canada to review the move. On Tuesday, Goodale introduced legislation aimed at addressing long-standing issues with segregation and treating mentally ill offenders.
“We are committed to a correctional system that keeps Canadians safe and holds guilty parties accountable for breaking the law while fostering practical rehabilitation,” Goodale said.
Bernardo, who admitted raping 14 other women, was also convicted of manslaughter in the December 1990 death of Homolka’s younger sister, Tammy. The 15-year-old girl died after the pair drugged and sexually assaulted her. Homolka later said she wanted Bernardo to have Tammy’s virginity as a Christmas present.
Homolka served 12 years until 2005 after pleading guilty to manslaughter in what critics branded as a “deal with the devil.” It was revealed last year that the mother of three had been volunteering at a Montreal-area elementary school.