The trial of accused murderers Grace and Piere Robotti will be held in Kelowna after an application to change the venue was granted on Friday.
Race, courthouse security, a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision and the Charter right to freedom of expression were all brought to the table as Justice Dev Dley handed down his decision citing security issues and alleged threats that were made to both defence counsel and Pierre Robotti.
“An accused should not be distracted from his ability to provide proper instructions to counsel, or at the same time be distracted by security issues that could better be managed in a different setting,” Dley said.
The Robottis are both charged with the second degree murder of 26-year-old Roxanne Louie on Jan. 4, 2015. Louie was a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band who grew up in Oliver.
Neither Pierre nor his sister Grace attended the hearing in Penticton Supreme Court on Aug. 20 for the application to move the trial venue to either Kelowna or Vancouver.
Laurie Wilson, who has acted as the Louie family spokesperson since the beginning of the court proceedings last year, said there was a concerted effort by family and friends to allow the justice system to work.
“It is what it is. I think the family has really done a lot of work in the communities. They’ve done a lot of work to remain positive and to exercise a whole lot of restraint in their dealing with this situation,” Wilson said. “They sat back and allowed the justice system to work and the RCMP system to work and this kind of feels like a slap in the face to all that attempt to be positive. The fact that we knew where (Pierre) lived, seen him in the community. There were no comments made to him, no one went to his house, nobody bothered them, either of them.”
She called the behaviour of Louie’s family and friends an indication of the restraint and respect for the community for the justice process.
“Instead, you take one comment out of this whole thing and pretend that it’s a threat. It just is what it is. We’ll continue to go on and keep on in the way the family has wanted us to,” Wilson said, adding that the venue change will cause some hardship for those family members who will need to take time off of their jobs and travel to Kelowna during the trial.
Louie’s uncle, Dan Wilson, has said it before, but reiterated that “justice delayed is justice denied,” finding some solace in the attempt to expedite the trial and advocate for the ability to express a desire for justice.
“I was pleased to hear the judge say that there’s nothing wrong with us wearing our ‘justice for Roxanne’ buttons and the mother of Roxanne having ‘justice for Roxanne’ on her vehicle,” Dan said.
Dan also noted that Kelowna is also part of Okanagan Nation Alliance territory.
“Roxanne is a beautiful Okanagan Nation member and if the defence thinks we’re going to tone down our demonstrations and our cry for justice, they’re mistaken. The fact that the Kelowna court house is bigger, we’re going to be packing it,” Dan said. “Even if it was moved to Vancouver.”
The application to change the trial venue was brought forward jointly by defence counsels Don Skogstad (Pierre) and James Pennington (Grace).
Skogstad brought forward local media coverage which he called “excess publicity,” of the case. In an affidavit filed by the accused Pierre, who has resided in Penticton for 30 years, he deposed “I’ve never seen a case featured so prominently in the media as the case involving myself and my sister.”
“It’s heightened by the fact that the accused are both caucasian and the victim is First Nations — a young First Nations woman. In the context of today, of course, that’s a very live issue,” Skogstad said.
Crown counsel John Swanson said he was “strenuously opposed” to the application to change venues. While he conceded Kelowna has a newer, larger courthouse with better security features, he noted high-profile, high-publicity trials have been held in the Penticton Courthouse before.
He called the media coverage “significant” but “entirely professional” dealing only with the arrest and bail of the two accused with minor coverage of the preliminary inquiry.
Having reviewed the media reports in the affidavit filed by Pierre, Justice Dley noted the publicity of the case alone was not enough of a reason to relocate.
Defence counsels also referenced upwards of 10 demonstrations put on by the local and provincial First Nations organizations as well as family and friends of Louie outside the Penticton Courthouse during multiple procedurals throughout the bail and preliminary inquiry processes.
Skogstad addressed the buttons and signs that state “justice for Roxanne,” which were worn in the court gallery during the preliminary inquiry, one worn by a witness while on the stand.
“It’s understandably a matter of very great interest to First Nations, indeed, but of course First Nations know nothing about the evidence,” he said.
Skogstad relayed a statement deposed by Pierre, alleging while he was at the preliminary inquiry “someone called him a murderer. In this very courtroom, right here.”
“There is nothing wrong with members of the community advocating for justice,” Dley said in his decision, though he noted, “I am concerned about the threats and the tenor of those comments that have been made both to the accused and their counsel.”
Pennington referenced a speech made in the Sept. 21 “Ride for Roxanne,” in which horseback riders made their way from the Penticton Indian Band down Penticton’s Main Street to a rally across from the courthouse. He said a man at the rally stated on stage at the Gyro Park bandshell that “those guys (the Robottis) should be disciplined for what they did to that young lady, but also the dog-gone lawyers that got them off, right?”
Pennington, who two weeks earlier to the day was in provincial court arguing to keep a high-profile kidnapping case in Penticton despite security issues brought forward by local sheriffs, said it is “unfortunate that we even have to consider making an application for you to consider a change of venue, it really is unfortunate.”
In the kidnapping case [Read more: Security issues over Kidnapping inquiry) Pennington said Penticton often gets the “short end of the stick” when it comes to trials moving to the more capable facilities in Kelowna, calling the broader trend a disservice to the public.
Security concerns were raised by Skogstad, citing a lack of secure access to the courthouse which would have the Robottis walking through an open area, where the public gallery, media and judges will also have to enter the courtroom. Skogstad called Penticton Supreme Court “one of the worst courtrooms for security for a jury trial in the province of British Columbia.”
Swanson said if issues of intimidation of witnesses or the jury arise, they could be dealt with at the time, however he noted there was no evidence of either.
“What my friends are saying is well these are potential problems, not real problems yet and because they are potential problems we need to move the trial,” Swanson said. “In my position that simply is the wrong approach.”
Justice Dley queried counsel about the fact the earliest date for trial, should it be scheduled Aug. 19 in Penticton, would have been in the summer of 2017. Dley cited a Supreme Court of Canada decision which addressed the issue of time limits for criminal trials — 18 months for provincial court cases and 30 months for Supreme Court cases.
“In making my decision I must include an additional factor that has not been considered previously, and that is the time to trial,” Dley said.
Defence and Crown counsel will meet Sept. 12 to set a date for a pre-trial conference and a voire dire, both of which will be held in Penticton.