Beware of Twitter in courtrooms, Russell Williams’
defence team says
Julie Oliver/Postmedia News
Lawyers for convicted sex killer Russell
Williams, Vince Clifford (L) and Michael Edelson are warning of the
use of Twitter in courtrooms by Canadian media.
hris Cobb, Postmedia News
· Monday, Jan. 24, 2011
OTTAWA — The “mountain” of graphic evidence tabled by Crown
prosecutors at the sentencing hearing for former Canadian Forces
base commander and convicted sex killer Russell Williams has led to
a new and troubling frontier for Canada’s justice system and news
media, Williams’ lawyers say.
In their first — and likely only —
full-length interview since Williams was sentenced for rape and
murder in October, Michael Edelson and Vince Clifford said
journalists inside the courtroom were being traumatized by lurid
images displayed on big screens while simultaneously racing to send
comments on Twitter and other instant messaging services.
“What resulted from time to time was crude, unnecessary,
misplaced tweet comments,” Mr. Clifford said.
“With tweeting you have 140 characters so there is very little
you can cover,” Mr. Edelson added. “You are losing the context and
not giving substantive descriptions of what’s going on. And some of
what was coming back (from readers) was ‘this is horrible, it’s too
much information and we don’t want to hear about this’.”
During their interview with the Ottawa Citizen, the lawyers
called for a high-level national debate over new media and its
growing impact on Canadian court proceedings and spoke of how they
deliberately put a protective “code of silence” on the Williams
evidence — even within their own office.
The former colonel who commanded CFB Trenton was sentenced in
October to two concurrent life sentences without a chance of parole
for 25 years for the murders of Jessica Lloyd, 27, and Cpl.
Marie-France Comeau, 37, two counts of sexual assault and forcible
confinement and more than 80 fetish break-and-enters and attempted
break-and-enters in Ottawa and the eastern Ontario communities of
Tweed and Belleville from 2007 to 2009.
He stole women’s bras and panties during the break-ins,
fastidiously organized and documented his trophies and even took
pictures of himself wearing the undergarments.
Both lawyers saw the evidence available to police and
prosecutors, including all the photographs and, in Mr. Clifford’s
case, more than five hours of video that the 47-year-old Williams
shot during his brutal murders of Lloyd and Comeau.
Expressing a desire to put the Williams hearing behind them, the
lawyers refused to discuss the personal impact of the case or any
details of their dealings with Williams.
But Mr. Clifford did recently remark to the professional magazine
Canadian Lawyer: “It’s something that will carry with us until we
finish practising and maybe even for all our days.”
Mr. Edelson told the magazine: “We’re never going to forget what
The veteran lawyer, who has represented clients in some of
Ottawa’s more high-profile criminal cases, also revealed that he has
been inundated with interview requests from American media,
including the main TV networks, and European journalists.
“We have turned down countless requests because it’s not what we
do,” he said. “But there are certain lessons that flow from this
case for lawyers, judges and the media and we feel pretty strongly
Most important for Canada, they said, is that the judicial system
comes to devise strategies to deal with new media and what they see
as the inevitable encroachment of TV cameras into Canadian
“Law societies across the country have to come to grips with
whether we need a new series of professional conduct rules to deal
with this,” said Edelson, “and whether judges need some direction in
when and how to deal with it.
“These are new media and they’re very popular and we have to
address those issues in a very straightforward and transparent way
so everyone knows what the ground rules are. It’s become a huge
issue and I think it would be a fantastic thing for Canada to
discuss it in a serious and comprehensive way.”
Instant messaging from a guilty plea such as the Williams
sentencing carries no risk, added Mr. Edelson, because there are no
witnesses to call. But he says it was a huge issue in the 2009
influencing peddling trial of former Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien
trial, he said.
Mr. Edelson and Mr. Clifford successfully defended Mr. O’Brien.
It was the first Canadian criminal court proceeding where, at the
request of the Ottawa Citizen, tweeting was allowed. The Williams
hearing was also opened to tweeting at the request of the Ottawa
Citizen. Between the two cases, journalists broadcast tweets from a
high-profile biker gang trial in London, Ont.
“Traditionally when we do trials we have an order excluding
witnesses so the next witness can’t tailor their evidence to the
previous witness,” he said. “We do that so they don’t hear the
evidence of the previous witness.
“With this new media you have a situation where people could
literally follow the trial on Twitter and discover exactly what we
are excluding from the courtroom to prevent them from discovering.
And I know for a fact they did.
“It was a big issue with O’Brien and it will be a big issue
The answer, Mr. Clifford said, is not to necessarily ban instant
messaging from courtrooms.
“But media have to recognize that there are certain inherent
dangers in the process that flows from combining the portrayal of
graphic evidence with the race to report. As counsel we have to
think very carefully what we say in a courtroom. It is a reasonable
expectation that journalists will think very carefully about what
they say occurred in a courtroom.”
Mr. Edelson, a newspaper junkie, is more blunt, especially about
“It’s rubbish,” he said. “I have no interest in looking at it.
I’m a huge advocate of freedom of the press. It is a key component
of a free and democratic society, but if you want serious analysis
and serious discourse you have to look to serious journalists doing
During the Williams hearing, Mr. Edelson and Mr. Clifford said
they saw some traumatized, exhausted journalists in tears over the
images they had seen in the courtroom — images that lawyers for
media outlets had asked to be made public.
All but a fraction of those available images were published or
broadcast by mainstream media. Reporters and editors also decided
that the graphic written descriptions of the videos shot by Williams
were too disturbing and contributed little to the public’s
understanding of the story.
This mass expression of media restraint confirmed for the two
lawyers that the amount of evidence released by the Crown was
excessive and their efforts to negotiate limits were justified.
Crown attorney Lee Burgess said he wanted enough evidence on the
record to persuade future parole boards never to release Williams.
The evidence that was released was the result of intense
negotiations between Mr. Edelson, Mr. Clifford and the prosecutors.
“We didn’t want it to be a runaway train,” Mr. Edelson said. “We
wanted it to be controlled and structured. We spent a large amount
of time with Crown counsel who were largely responsive to our
Asked why he took the case, Mr. Edelson said he “was asked to.”
“It’s probably no more complicated than that,” he said. “When you
take case you often don’t know the details and that’s one of the
risks. You may end up immersed in a file that’s very difficult. But
that’s no reason to refuse.”