‘Nobody wanted to let go even a little bit’: Inside the final days of the last Toronto murder trials running during COVID-19

‘Nobody wanted to let go even a little bit’: Inside the final days of the last Toronto murder trials running during COVID-19
It took sacrifices and determination to continue two murder trials to the end as the COVID-19 pandemic forced an unprecedented shutdown in a Toronto courthouse over the last two weeks — an effort that revealed a rarely seen human side to the justice system.

“Nobody wanted to let go even a little bit. Everyone held so tight to the end. And I think that is about humanity in a system that very rarely shows humanity,” said Becky McFarlane, who has been the support person for Tess Richey’s mother Christine Hermeston during the seven-week trial of her daughter’s killer .

McFarlane works for The 519 , a community centre in the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood located right opposite where Hermeston found her 22-year-old daughter’s body on Nov. 29, 2017. As part of the centre’s commitment to support Richey’s family, McFarlane attended every day of the trial — including Monday evening, when a jury found .

For McFarlane, sitting in court has meant she hasn’t been able to see her child, who has asthma, just in case she gets COVID-19 and passes it on.

It has meant worrying constantly about the safety of Richey’s mother and family, who had to keep coming to court to see the outcome of the trial, more than two years after the murder.

But after the court almost entirely shut down on March 15, she was moved by the work of the court staff, the Crown prosecutors, the defence lawyers, the judge, the jurors and the courthouse cleaners who all worked to keep the trial going as safely as possible.

“Getting to the end is a testament to the humanity of everyone in that courtroom,” McFarlane said. “And maybe it is a good reminder that very impersonal systems are really made up of human beings who want to do the right thing.”

For the past two weeks, it often did not seem like the trial would be able to end.

“I could see what was coming and even leaving the house that day I had a lot of anxiety,” she said.

A friend suggested getting lunch at the Eaton Centre and she said no.

“At the time it seemed almost silly, but we know now it wasn’t,” she said.

The next day, March 11, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, and by the end of the week, for months. Discussions were underway to close the courts to only essential functions like bail and pleas.

Then, that Sunday night on March 15 , the Superior Court of Justice announced a near-total shutdown until June — a decision that left many including the Richey family uncertain and anxious about what would happen to the trial.

Would all 12 jurors want to continue? Could the courts remain even open? Would the trial be postponed for months? Would there be a mistrial, only to have to start all over again at some later date?

The longer the trial went on, the more chances there would be for a crisis. Lawyers observing the proceedings privately said it was dangerous and foolhardy that judges had decided to continue two jury trials — Richey’s and another Toronto murder case — and the courts were under intense pressure to further reduce operations.

In the other case, it was around the time of the WHO declaration, as Aruran Suthakaran’s trial for second-degree murder was almost over, that prosecutor Paul Kelly said things “started to get weird.”

Brian Kolman, Suthakaran’s defence lawyer, agreed. “We didn’t really know from Thursday until Monday what was going to happen,” he said. “The trial was 95 per cent done. For us, it made sense to try and forge on.”

The other options — postponing until June or having a mistrial — both came with downsides. “Some of those cross-examinations could only be done once,” Kolman said, “you don’t want to do that again.”

Ultimately, just the two jury trials in Toronto were granted a special exemption to continue after the court shutdown.

Both were almost over, about to hear closing arguments and begin deliberations.

“It’s not that I didn’t think this could happen I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly,” Kelly said. “There seemed to be a couple of huge leaps. This is closed, that is closed — then suddenly the court is closed.”

On Monday, March 16, both sets of 12 jurors came into a suddenly quiet Toronto courthouse, with the option to use taxis rather than public transit to travel to and from their homes. They sat side-by-side in their jury box — a level of proximity that now seemed surreal and uncomfortable.

After brief discussions, both juries decided to continue their civic duty until the end.

Their reasons were not shared publicly. Maybe it was the understanding that it would be difficult to postpone or do these trials over. Maybe it was the mental and emotional investment that the jurors had already made after hearing often deeply disturbing evidence. Maybe it was seeing Tess Richey’s mother and four sisters sitting in the courtroom every day, waiting for justice.

Schlatter’s jury was given the option to start deliberations a day earlier, but chose to proceed on Friday, March 20, as originally planned.
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