Tori Stafford’s mother and father, like the parents of other slain children, sit through all the criminal proceedings, willing themselves to hear the details of their daughter’s last hours, no matter how horrific or painful the evidence.
They can’t help it, says a Toronto lawyer who has worked closely with victims’ families. They’re compelled by a need to be there for their child, to somehow protect her in death after being unable to protect her in life.
“It’s nothing short of excruciating for them,” said Tim Danson, who represented the families of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, the teenagers killed by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka in 1991.
“I’ve always been amazed at how resilient these families are and their ability to withstand the horror and shock of what happened to their child."
Danson is closely following events in London, Ont., where Michael Rafferty, 31, is on trial for first-degree murder, sexual assault causing bodily harm and abduction.
Tara McDonald and Rodney Stafford, the parents of the eight-year-old victim, Victoria "Tori" Stafford, have been in the courtroom every day.
Convicted killer gives evidence
Last week, the most disturbing testimony came from Terri-Lynne McClintic, 21, who pleaded guilty in April 2010 to first-degree murder of the Woodstock girl and is serving a life sentence. She is the Crown’s star witness against Rafferty, her former boyfriend.
McClintic told the court that one day in April 2009, she lured Tori after school to a car where Rafferty waited. He drove them to a Home Depot in Guelph, so McClintic could buy garbage bags and a hammer, and then to an isolated spot north of the city, where Rafferty raped Tori, the court heard.
Contradicting earlier statements to police, McClintic said it was she, not Rafferty, who kicked Tori, bludgeoned her with a claw hammer and killed her. She and Rafferty then put the child in garbage bags and buried her under some rocks, McClintic testified.
Outside court Friday, Rodney Stafford told reporters it is difficult to hear the brutal details, but people need to know what happened.
“People have to know how horrifying it was,” he said. “This was an eight-year-old girl, totally defenseless against a 28-year-old male and an 18-year-old female. Two pit bulls after a Chihuahua is what it is. If both those pit bulls attack that Chihuahua they would be put down. Enough said.”
Danson, who is not representing Tori Stafford’s parents, said that in his 30 years of legal experience, he has never had to persuade the parents in such cases to attend court, and there is some consistency in how they deal with it.
Danson has also acted for the families of Holly Jones, 10, who was snatched off a Toronto street and killed by Michael Briere, a software developer, in 2003, and Christopher Stephenson, 11, who was abducted from a Brampton, Ont., shopping mall in 1988 and killed by Joseph Fredericks, a convicted child molester.
Can't abandon their child
The parents experience a “unique dichotomy,” Danson said. On one hand, they do not want to hear about the terror and anguish of their child’s final moments. On the other hand, they feel they must.
“They were not able to be with their child when it was important to protect them, so not being in the courtroom in solidarity with them is unthinkable. If they're not there, they feel like they've abandoned their child.”
Sitting through the trial also helps bring a degree of closure, he added.
“They need to know the truth because without having answers to their questions, they cannot move forward.”
But there is some evidence that families do not need to see or hear, and Danson has acted as a buffer, protecting them against the worst of it, such as gruesome autopsy and crime scene photos or videotapes of the deaths.
In the Bernardo case, for example, Danson watched the videotapes of the sexual attacks and deaths, the crime scene photos and certain other hard evidence, not just for the French and Mahaffy families but for Jane Doe who survived.
He persuaded the families not to be in court when the tapes were played and successfully fought to have the images on the tapes shown only to the judge, jury and court stenographers. The news media and others in the public gallery were limited to hearing the soundtrack.
“I feel incredibly protective of these children and when I see the extent of their violation on videotape, why should anyone else want to see this degradation and humiliation?” Danson asked.
After the appeals process ran its course, he successfully fought on behalf of the families to have the tapes destroyed.
Danson also pushed to have Homolka’s plea bargain nullified on the grounds that she lied to the Crown about her involvement in the deaths. This effort failed, but he was successful in blocking Homolka’s parole to ensure she served her full 12-year sentence for manslaughter. She was released in 2005, while Bernardo is serving a life sentence.
Details can't be avoided at trial
The families don’t typically read or see media coverage of a trial, which for the most part so far in the Stafford case has not been excessive, Danson said.
There can be no “sanitation” of the crime during trial because that would hamper the prosecution in its quest for a life sentence with no appeal, and also because the evidence provides a factual foundation in any future parole hearings, Danson said.
“The open court principle is sacrosanct to any democratic society,” he said. “The murder of a child is disturbing no matter how you cover it, but the public has to know the justice system is working.
“You can describe the murder without going into every gory detail. Tori was murdered by hammer blows to the head. Yes, you should report the method of death to show the heinous and cowardly nature of it, but beyond that, describing crime scene and autopsy photos is going too far and gratuitous.”
Danson, who specializes in civil and corporate commercial law, never thought when he was a law student that he would become an advocate for victims in criminal cases.
“It has an emotional impact on your life, your family and your pocketbook,” he said.
Families for the most part cannot afford to hire lawyers, so Danson has done it all pro bono, including representing the Stephenson family at a five-month inquest after the criminal trial.
The recommendations from that inquest laid the blueprint for justice reform, including a national DNA database, provincial and federal sexual offender registries and the sharing of information between the mental health and criminal justice systems.
After delivering its recommendations, the inquest jury took the extraordinary move of holding a news conference to highlight the key role Danson played in bringing issues to their attention from the perspective of victims and their families.
The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime wants victims or their families in certain cases, such as sexual assault, murder and domestic violence, to have their own legal representation in court, said its executive director, Heidi Illingworth.
“We believe victims should have standing and a right to representation paid for by the state,” as is the case in Japan, France and some U.S. states, she said.
“But it would take a huge shift in thinking in this country for that to happen.”
While the Crown represents the public interest and the defence ensures the accused’s interests are safeguarded, there is no one in court to represent victims or their families, she said. Courts do assign victim services workers to help families, but they are often so overloaded they cannot be in court every day, she added.
“So while [victims and families] are not excluded, they’re observers at best,” Illingworth said. “Unless they have a lawyer, they are not parties to the proceedings. It can compound their feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness.”
A severe drain on families
In addition to the emotional toll, being in court can also take a financial toll on families, who have to take time off work, sometimes for several months, to attend, Illingworth said.
The process can leave families so drained that only 11 per cent across Canada provide the court with victim impact statements.
Having someone like Danson to lean on is a godsend for victims’ families, Illingworth said. Danson developed a close bond with the French and Mahaffy families, routinely getting calls from them at 2 a.m. during trial. They have stayed in touch, getting together a couple of times a year, as well as exchanging Christmas cards.
He is often asked whether such families recover from the trauma.
“Never. They never get over it,” he said. “They learn coping mechanisms but there’s always a hole in their hearts. Christmas, birthdays, weddings, other family events are sometimes moments of hurtful reflection.”
Danson has found that parents with other children cope better because they still feel they have a purpose — to raise and protect their remaining children.
Danson tells them to imagine what their murdered child would say, looking down on them in their grief.
“I say, “If Kristen, Leslie, Christopher, Holly or Tori could talk to you, you know what they would say in terms of getting on with your life.’
“You need to live as full and happy a life as possible. A downward spiral where life is nothing but a living hell means the killer has conquered not only your child but also conquered you.”
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