26 Feb 2009

Accused polygamist looking for legal aid from B.C

The Vancouver Sun - February 26, 2009

Winston Blackmore is also trying to get his passport back

by Daphne Bramham

Winston Blackmore has yet to enter his plea to the criminal charge of practising polygamy, but he's already on his third lawyer, has filed for legal aid and asked Utah's attorney-general for help in having his bail conditions amended.

Gone from Blackmore's legal team is former Liberal MLA Blair Suffredine, even though he attended Blackmore's two court appearances in Creston, including one last week.

Suffredine was outspoken in his condemnation of same-sex marriages -- even though two of Blackmore's 19 "wives" listed on the indictment are married to each other -- suggesting basically that we've gone so far down the road to destroying marriage that we might as well have polygamy, too.

Also gone is Glenn Orris, who Suffredine said would be leading the team.

Blackmore's new lawyer is Joe Arvay, a well-known human rights and constitutional lawyer, whose firm successfully argued before the Supreme Court of Canada that the Constitution protects gays and lesbians from discrimination.

Dealing with how he gets paid may be one of Arvay's first tasks.

Up until recently, 52-year-old Blackmore was one of the wealthiest men in the Creston Valley. He had a farm, a large ranch and several forestry companies including a post-and-pole mill, a trucking operation and logging firm with lucrative contracts with Tembec.

But Blackmore -- spiritual leader to about half of the 1,000 people in Bountiful -- has fallen on hard times. It's not just the downturn in the forestry industry. Blackmore lost a large portion of his workforce when he was excommunicated from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Many -- including men from his own family -- stuck with the FLDS, went to work for companies run by other FLDS members and pledged their loyalty to the new bishop, James Oler, and the prophet, Warren Jeffs.

Oler is also charged with one count of practising polygamy. But there's so much bad blood between the two men that at their next court appearance on April 22 in Cranbrook, Blackmore and/or Oler may ask that their cases be severed.

There is also a valid legal reason. Although both believe that taking multiple wives is a religious imperative, the number of wives each is alleged to have and the time period of the violations are different.

Blackmore has indicated that for economic reasons he needs his bail conditions changed. Both Oler and Blackmore had to forfeit their passports and agree not to travel outside the country. Blackmore even asked Utah Attorney-General Mark Shurtleff for help in getting his passport back. Shurtleff wisely declined.

Not only does Blackmore have business there, he has family including three American "wives," who were deported in 2006.

But special prosecutor Terry Robertson says he will oppose any alterations to the bail conditions. Both men are considered flight risks. It hasn't helped them that FLDS prophet Jeffs was a fugitive for nearly two years and ended up on the FBI's Most Wanted List.

The Legal Services Society won't comment on Blackmore's application for legal aid. However, he's unlikely to qualify since eligibility for taxpayer-funded help in paying lawyers' bills is based on a household income, which includes "all money or benefits earned or received by adult family members who are living together."

Of the wives listed in the indictment alone, two are midwives and several others are licensed practical nurses.

But the father of 118 children can deduct child-care expenses and what he receives in B.C. family bonus and child tax benefits is exempt.

If he is denied legal aid, Robertson expects Blackmore will ask for court-ordered counsel as Willie Pickton and the accused in the Air India case did.

One of the criteria for requiring the province to pay a defendant's legal expenses is that the case is so complex. And there's no doubt the polygamy case is complicated. Everyone expects it will be the Supreme Court of Canada justices who finally determine whether the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom includes the practice of polygamy.

But in exchange for legal funding that could run to more than $1 million, Blackmore and/or Oler will have to disclose detailed financial records, providing insights not only into how one man supports 26 wives and 118 children, but how communal property is used and how much taxpayers spend each year to support the reclusive community.

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