01/06/2015 03:50 EST | Updated 03/08/2015 05:59 EDT

Vulnerable witnesses to get support from Crown years after Pickton dodged trial

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's prosecution service is correcting a problem that both critics and a public inquiry have said could have ended Robert Pickton's killing rampage five years sooner.

A Crown lawyer decided against using the testimony of a drug-addicted woman who was nearly slashed to death by the Port Coquitlam pig farmer, after which at least 19 more women vanished from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Sixteen years after the shelved prosecution, British Columbia is moving to close the gap with a new policy to support vulnerable witnesses.

The province's criminal justice branch announced it is implementing a host of new guidelines aimed at fulfilling a key recommendation made two years ago by the public inquiry looking into the city's missing women.

"We have to encourage women who are vulnerable — and in Pickton, they were the most vulnerable of the vulnerable — we have to encourage them to come forward and testify as to the wrongdoings that were inflicted on them," said Commissioner Wally Oppal after the policy was released on Tuesday.

Oppal presided over eight months of hearings and made 63 recommendations after Canada's highest court upheld the 2007 conviction of Pickton on six counts of second-degree murder. He was originally charged with killing 26 women, most of them from the notoriously impoverished neighbourhood, but the remaining charges were stayed.

A decade before that conviction, prosecutors called off a trial for attempted murder of a woman given the pseudonym Ms. Anderson when they found her in the throes of heroin addiction. Six months earlier, she fled from the farm after allegedly being handcuffed and attacked with a knife, dying twice on the operating table before pulling through.

The inquiry heard in spring 2012 that a Crown lawyer determined the sex worker would be an unreliable witness. The proceedings against Pickton were stayed.

The government's new policy puts a spotlight on cases involving allegations of serious personal injury, stating that vulnerable victims require ongoing support and their participation in the justice system needs to be encouraged.

The guidelines include:

— Identifying people who require victim and witness support early in the process.

— Reducing the number of prosecutors who handle a vulnerable witness file.

— Seeking appropriate protective conditions for vulnerable witnesses.

— Actively engaging vulnerable witnesses to encourage their ongoing participation.

— Obtaining support from agencies for vulnerable witnesses in a timely manner.

A spokesman for B.C.'s Criminal Justice Branch said Crown counsel will receive internal training sessions on the new policy and the current budget will cover those costs.

Oppal said the new policy is "right on," noting a major downfall in the Pickton case was that vulnerable women distrusted police and that meant authorities sometimes missed gathering crucial information. He said Ms. Anderson was the most salient example, but she wasn't the only inspiration for his recommendation.

"We were well aware of the fact that other women, who even testified at the inquiry, didn't want to come and testify," he said. "Many were really critical of the system."

An advocate for marginalized groups welcomed the guidelines as a positive but insufficient development.

Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF, a legal education and action fund, said her group was not consulted and criticized the policy's failure to mention specific services for indigenous women. Many of the women who disappeared were aboriginal.

"It would be good to have it spelled out that that victim and witness support was culturally appropriate," Govender said.

The policy outlines that First Nations victims or those engaged in the sex trade may be uniquely vulnerable.

Other associated recommendations have yet to be completed, Govender said, including providing funding for research looking into why vulnerable witnesses are not believed in court and how that can be fixed.

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