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Lawyers for alleged Winnipeg serial killer point to opinion poll in bid to get jury tossed


The lawyers of an alleged serial killer in Winnipeg are questioning whether pre-trial publicity in the high-profile case may have influenced the jury’s decision-making ability, after a public poll commissioned by the defence found 81 per cent of respondents believe the accused is guilty.

Jeremy Skibicki is charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of four Indigenous women: Rebecca Contois, Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran, and a fourth unidentified woman who Indigenous have given the name Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe or Buffalo Woman.

He has pleaded not guilty.

His defence lawyers’ bid to toss the jury in the trial continued Tuesday in Manitoba’s Court of King’s Bench.

READ MORE: Winnipeg trial of man accused of killing four women starts with bid to toss jury

Skibicki’s lawyers launched a constitutional question over the partiality of the jury, seeking to have the case heard by judge-alone and not a jury.

The argument hinges on a public opinion poll commissioned by Legal Aid Manitoba, which is representing Skibicki in the case. The poll, conducted by Mainstreet Research in February, posed questions to 906 Manitobans, all of whom were eligible for a jury.

The poll gathered thoughts on Skibicki and what respondents think of various potential defences in the case – such as a defence that he is not criminally responsible due to mental disorder.

The poll, which was released to the media by the court Tuesday, found – of the people aware of the Skibicki case – 81 per cent of respondents believed the accused was guilty based on what they had seen, read or heard about the case. The poll said 17 per cent were unsure, and 2 per cent said they believe he is not guilty.

Ninety-five per cent of the respondents aware of the case indicated they had a somewhat or strongly negative opinion of Skibicki, while only five per cent said they had a somewhat or strongly positive opinion.

The court heard on Monday the poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.3 per cent.

Expert witness Dr. Christine Ruva, a U.S.-based cognitive psychologist and professor told the court one of the reasons the poll was done was to assess bias in the community.

She has extensively studied the influence pre-trial publicity can have on jury decision-making in the United States, and said in this case, there has been a significant amount of coverage – more than 400 articles.

“The more pre-trial publicity, the more bias,” Ruva told the court.

When asked by Skibicki’s defence if a jurors opinion could change once evidence is presented in trial, Ruva said it’s unlikely.

“People’s belief in guilt stays roughly the same even after trial evidence if they have an opinion of guilt in the case after being exposed to pre-trial publicity,” she said.

She said the safest way to avoid unconscious jury bias is to only allow people to serve on a jury if they haven’t heard of the case before.

However, Crown prosecutor Christian Vanderhooft pushed back against Ruva’s testimony, pointing to the high-profile jury trial in the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old First Nations girl who was killed in Winnipeg.

The death and pre-trial coverage was significant, Vanderhooft said, but in that case, the jury acquitted the accused.

“Jurors and juries do in fact acquit people all the time – not everybody is found guilty,” Vanderhooft said.

Ruva agreed, but said her research is based on many cases, not one single case.

“I haven’t been on one yet where the person wasn’t found guilty,” she said.

In Skibicki’s case, a 12-person jury and two alternates were selected in April. The court heard Tuesday more than half indicated they hadn’t heard of this case before.

The matter continues in court Wednesday. Top Stories

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