There are good reasons why the spouse of the man responsible for the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history should not face cross-examination when she testifies Friday before a public inquiry, her lawyer says.
James Lockyer said Thursday his client, Lisa Banfield, should not be retraumatized by lawyers who seem determined to explore conspiracy theories about what happened April 18-19, 2020, when Gabriel Wortman killed 22 people during a 13-hour rampage across Nova Scotia.
The Toronto lawyer said some lawyers who represent victims’ families appear keen to ask Banfield how she managed to escape from her deranged partner and survive a bitterly cold night in the woods around Portapique, N.S., on the first night of the rampage.
“Some of the lawyers, one or two of them, have been pretty hyperbolic in their statements,” Lockyer said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“They talk of wanting to cross-examine her about certain aspects of her trauma that night without ever explaining their goals. And their goals, when you think about it, can only be conspiracy-theorist goals.”
Lockyer said the purpose of raising questions about Banfield’s whereabouts would be to challenge her credibility and suggest that she may have spent the night elsewhere, which he says is absurd.
“These mass casualty events, particularly (those) we’ve seen south of the border, do give rise to conspiracy theorists,” Lockyer said. “We don’t need that in Canada. We don’t need that in Nova Scotia. I think the commission is to be congratulated that they’re not willing to entertain it.”
Lawyer Michael Scott, whose firm represents 14 of the victims’ families, challenged Lockyer’s conspiracy comments, arguing that the inquiry’s decision to limit questioning will leave lingering doubts about Banfield’s testimony.
“There are very good questions to be asked about how she survived overnight,” Scott said Thursday. “And by arranging a process where nobody is allowed to ask reasonable questions, then this promotes conspiracy theories.”
The three commissioners overseeing the federal-provincial inquiry recently decided Banfield will not face cross-examination from lawyers who represent relatives of the victims, mainly because she could be traumatized by having to relive the violence she endured.
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The inquiry has heard evidence that Banfield, whose relationship with Wortman spanned 19 years, was the victim of a controlling, abusive man who repeatedly beat her. Banfield has also told the RCMP and the commission that she was beaten and threatened immediately before her husband started killing people in Portapique.
On Thursday, the commission issued written reasons for its decision to limit questioning of Banfield, arguing that the role of a public inquiry is not the same as a trial.
“We have been clear from the beginning that this is not an adversarial, trial-like proceeding,” the ruling says. The decision says the commission’s approach “represents the most effective way to gather Ms. Banfield’s best evidence.”
Sandra McCulloch, a lawyer who works at the same firm as Scott, said inquiries and trials should share a commitment to finding facts.
“As much as we’re in a different kind of legal proceeding, we’re still in a proceeding where we have to have reliable evidence, and part of having reliable evidence is allowing it to be tested,” McCulloch said. “That’s largely not going to happen.”
McCulloch is concerned that Banfield will not be asked about her partner’s violent behaviour while they were together on that deadly weekend in April 2020.
In an earlier statement, the commission said Banfield may be accompanied by two support people and will “address remaining questions relevant to the commission’s mandate.”
Earlier this week, the commission released a 100-page document based on evidence provided by Banfield during four interviews with the RCMP and five interviews with the inquiry. That document provided extensive details about the killer’s long history of gender-based violence.
As well, the inquiry on Wednesday was shown a video recording of a 90-minute RCMP interview, which featured Banfield providing a detailed description of what happened to her on the night of April 18, 2020.
The commission has confirmed participating lawyers have been invited to submit questions in advance of Banfield’s testimony, and they can bring forward further questions on Friday.
Scott has said his clients have instructed him not to submit written questions for Banfield because doing so would lend legitimacy to a flawed process.
Lawyers for some families boycotted proceedings in May after the inquiry prevented cross-examination of two RCMP staff sergeants who oversaw the early response to the mass shooting.
Lockyer said his client was feeling apprehensive about appearing before the inquiry, which will be the first time she has spoken in public about the tragedy.
“I know … she says to herself, `If I hadn’t run and got away, would I have saved 22 lives?’ And of course she says that to herself and always will. The probable answer is that it would have been 23 lives and not 22, but she’s never going to believe that.”
It’s important to remember that Banfield was the first victim of the “mass casualty” event, he said.
“I don’t think Lisa sees herself as a victim. She’s too conscious of the people who were killed and their families. It’s going to be a difficult day for her.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 14, 2020.