22 Jan 2009

One of the two men accused in prosecution that will test polygamy law claims he's only just 'living' his religion

The Vancouver Sun - January 22, 2009

Landmark cases begin long slog through courts

by Daphne Bramham

Two landmark cases, which will determine whether polygamy practised in the name of religion is legal in Canada, began their long slog through the courts Wednesday.

Winston Blackmore, 52, and James Oler, 44, have each been charged with one count of practising polygamy.

And while the constitutional arguments are expected to be the feature attraction, Blackmore's lawyer, Blair Suffredine, says he'll also be making the argument that if the Canadian definition of marriage includes same-sex couples, why not multiple partners?

The charges against two fundamentalist Mormon men attracted nationwide media attention, prompting RCMP to close the street outside the courthouse to traffic and issue tickets for the tiny courtroom's 50 seats.

But there weren't enough people to fill all the seats and not a single plural wife to be seen.

Blackmore's and Oler's cases are being tried separately because even though the charge is the same, the facts are different.

Blackmore was first up. His indictment lists 19 women with whom he is said to have had conjugal relations. (Blackmore is also known to have close to 120 children.)

He is the spiritual leader to about 500 people in the deeply divided community of Bountiful. Bountiful is a cluster of homes, schools and a midwife's clinic located about 10 minutes away from Creston in southeastern British Columbia.

Wearing a black ball cap emblazoned with his company's logo and a dark suit jacket with a Canadian-flag lapel pin, Blackmore spoke briefly to reporters after his appearance. He made it clear that he was not disputing that he is a polygamist.

"I'm no attorney, I'm just a Canadian and I've taken the time last night to review the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, twice . . . not only our basic Canadian rights, but our equality rights. And I think if I'm guilty of anything, I'm guilty of being a Canadian and just living my religion."

In an interview before joining his brother in the courtroom, Karl Blackmore said the trials are a waste of taxpayers' money. He echoed his brother, saying, "The only thing I think I'm guilty of is living my religion. . . . And if our Charter of Rights doesn't support us in that, then I guess Canada is a fake."

Oler, who is charged with having conjugal relations with two women, is the bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose 500 or so followers comprise the other half of Bountiful.

The only person with Oler -- aside from his lawyer -- was FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop, who had come up from Texas.

Special prosecutor Terry Robertson has yet to disclose the Crown's evidence to their lawyers. Robertson promised Provincial Court Judge Don Carlgren that would be done before Feb. 18 when Blackmore and Oler will be back in court to enter their pleas and elect where and how they want to tried.

(In British Columbia, they can elect to be tried in provincial court or go directly to the Supreme Court of British Columbia where they have a choice of being tried by judge alone or by judge and jury.)

However, even if one or both elects to be tried in Provincial Court, Judge Carlgren said neither he nor the other local judge is willing to hear the cases. Carlgren also suggested that because of the limitations of Creston's tiny and ill-equipped courtroom, it might be best to have the trials moved elsewhere.

Even without having seen the disclosures, Suffredine said his client will plead not guilty but will not dispute most of the evidence.

Suffredine said trial by a Supreme Court justice without a jury is "the most efficient" option and the one his client will likely choose.

Oler left it to his lawyer, Robert Wickett, to speak to reporters after Wickett had successfully argued to have Oler's bail conditions amended so he can attend to his business in Alberta.

Both men were charged and released after agreeing that they would stay in British Columbia, surrender their passports, report twice a month to RCMP and not enter into or perform any plural marriages.

Wickett refused to say what his client might elect to do until after he sees the Crown's evidence. He also refused to comment when asked whether Oler is a polygamist.

Special prosecutor Terry Robertson, who is acting for the Crown, provided journalists with some glimpses of just how complicated this whole business is going to be.

Even disclosure is a bit of a nightmare, since RCMP made a single report to Robertson that recommended the pair be charged.

Now, unless both Blackmore and Oler agree to have all the evidence against them shared with the other, RCMP will have to sift through the equivalent of 18 banker's boxes filled with documents, weeding out what's relevant to each of the accused.

Then, there's the question of how to conduct two separate trials when at the heart of both is the question of whether the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom overrides the anti-polygamy law. Who gets tried first? What happens to the second case if the verdict in the first is appealed, as it almost certain? And, if there are delays as one goes to the Supreme Court of Canada, what about the other man's constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial?

It's a nightmare and no one expects that there will be evidence called or witnesses heard until late fall 2009 at the earliest.


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