09/22/2011 05:25 EDT | Updated 11/22/2011 05:12 EST

Clifford Olson: Serial Killer To Leave Lasting Legacy On Canadian Law


OTTAWA - Though mention of child sex-slayer Clifford Olson will inspire shudders for decades to come, his impact on the Canadian legal world is likely to leave an equally deep impression.

Legal experts say Olson, who is dying of cancer, largely inspired changes to the law that eliminate any chance of early parole for murderers and cut off old-age benefits for those behind bars.

Police also say frustrations in solving his case spurred the eventual creation of a homegrown computer tool for tracking violent offenders.

Olson, one of Canada's most notorious and reviled criminals, has been transferred from prison to a Montreal hospital and may have only days to live.

He murdered two children and nine youths in the early 1980s.

"Even within the realm of first-degree murderers, his crimes were particularly unusual and horrific," said Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

It was that devilish persona, utter lack of remorse, and inclination to taunt the families of his victims that put pressure on the then-Liberal government to tighten a provision that offered murderers the prospect of early parole.

The maximum penalty for murder is life in prison with no chance of full parole for 25 years.

But under the "faint hope" clause offenders could apply for parole eligibility after 15 years.

Reforms introduced by the Liberals denied this opportunity to multiple murderers.

But the 1997 revision was not retroactive, meaning Olson had the chance the following year to try to sway a jury that he should be granted a faint hope hearing.

Ray King, whose son was killed by Olson, spoke at the time of the pain he endured in the courtroom in the murderer's smirking presence.

"Throughout it all, the grin never left his face."

The Conservatives recently moved to kill the faint hope provision altogether. The legislation, which has received royal assent, is expected to soon come into force.

"Clifford Olson, I would say, is singularly responsible for defeating most lifers' chances for early release by way of the 15-year faint-hope clause," said John Hill, a lawyer for Olson during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Elimination of the clause means convicted murderers have less reason to behave in prison or to work on improving themselves, said Isabel Grant, a University of British Columbia law professor.

"I think it gives people less hope in prison for long periods of time," said Grant. "And I'm not sure that's really helpful for any of us."

Last year Olson boasted to a Toronto newspaper columnist that he received $1,200 a month in Old Age Security benefits.

The Conservatives soon ushered in legislation to deny inmates the payments.

Hill said the benefit suspension is a "major blow" to an aging penitentiary population.

"A lot of these guys only have what they can save when they get out, and to be thrown out of prison after many years where you don't have two nickels to rub together, trying to make it in society is difficult.

"A lot of people end up either staying in or doing something that puts them back in, so it's a horrible situation and we can only thank Clifford Olson for doing that to inmates."

Boyd said it's "difficult to be at all sad" about Olson's imminent demise.

"He was one of those few cases where just about all of us would say he should never see the light of day," he said.

"But we don't create laws for the very worst of all cases. We recognize that most people — even most first-degree murderers — will return to the community."

Olson's stunts further stained the image of other convicts, earning him the enmity of fellow inmates who bore the brunt of public revulsion and tighter restrictions.

"It tended to paint other prisoners with a really ugly brush," said Boyd.

"First-degree murderers are not all like Clifford Olson."

One positive development to emerge indirectly from the Olson case is a better means of sorting and comparing details of disparate crimes in order to detect patterns and zero in on serial offenders.

An early Canadian version that catalogued 800 cases did not provide much help. That led to some RCMP brainstorming on a new tool incorporating the budding science of psychological profiling.

The Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System, or ViCLAS, would help police make potentially valuable links in hundreds of cases.

Several other countries, including Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have adopted the system.

— With files from James Keller in Vancouver