This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 17, 1995
At various points in his cross-examination, defence lawyer John Rosen rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders. He was openly skeptical and downright sarcastic. He bellowed in a surly voice and pointed an accusing finger at the slender, ashen-faced witness. After two weeks of appearing as a Crown witness questioned by a sympathetic prosecutor, 25-year-old Karla Homolka last week faced the lawyer who is aggressively defending her ex-husband - Paul Bernardo, 30 - against two counts of first-degree murder. Rosen's dramatic gestures and rhetorical flourishes in the downtown Toronto courtroom were more than mere courtroom theatrics, meant simply to impress the jury and intimidate the witness. They were part of a strategic attack on the foundations of Homolka's story - and the Crown's theory. They maintain that she participated unwillingly in her former husband's alleged crimes, the rapes and killings of teenaged schoolgirls Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, because she had been terrorized by his violence and abuse.
Challenging the Crown's portrayal of Homolka as a submissive young woman who was manipulated and controlled by her partner throughout their five-year relationship, the 50-year-old Rosen read aloud dozens of love notes that she had sent to Bernardo. He depicted Homolka as a sexual aggressor who pursued Bernardo relentlessly during their courtship, became obsessed with marrying him and played an active role in several crimes. Rosen also produced several photographs of the couple, taken throughout the relationship, which showed a smiling, happy Homolka. But in the four days that she faced his imposing courtroom presence, Homolka did not budge. Far from appearing submissive, she disputed many of his charges and allegations - and her curt, often testy responses led to numerous heated exchanges. Frequently, Crown Attorney Ray Houlahan rose to object or Justice Patrick LeSage intervened to gently instruct Rosen to "let the witness answer."
While Rosen raised some serious doubts about Homolka's credibility, in doing so he referred to events that are equally damaging to his own client - who may, his lawyer indicated, testify later in the trial. Rosen accused Homolka of drugging her 15-year-old sister, Tammy, for Bernardo's sexual pleasure - not just once, as she had testified for the prosecution, but twice. Rosen charged that the other incident happened about five months before the previously known assault of Dec. 24, 1990, which led to the teenager's death when she choked on her own vomit. He said the earlier attack, like the fatal one, took place in the basement of the Homolka family home in St. Catharines, Ont. Homolka denied it ever happened, saying: "You are dead wrong."
Rosen also suggested that while Homolka's parents and younger sister Lori, then 19, were away on business in Toronto for several days in January, 1991, about three weeks after Tammy's death, Bernardo raped a teenage girl in Homolka's bedroom while she watched. In her earlier testimony, Homolka had claimed that Bernardo had "consensual sex" with a woman in the basement while she remained upstairs. Rosen's allegation led to a typically hostile exchange:
"What happens as soon as your parents leave?" the lawyer asked rhetorically. "The first thing he did was go out and get a girl. He brought her back for kinky sex but at the last moment you chickened out because it was with a stranger and she wasn't drugged, right?"
"That's not true," Homolka snapped back. "I was not thinking about what Paul was doing. I was thinking that my sister was dead."
"He brings her in the house and you don't stand there and say, 'What the hell are you doing? Get her out of my house! Get her out the door!' "
"I didn't say no to Paul because he had something big held over my head."
But no matter how probing it is, Rosen's cross-examination alone, which was to continue this week, appeared unlikely to put more than a dent in the Crown's case. The Crown claims Bernardo strangled the girls after abducting them and sexually assaulting them in the St. Catharines house he rented with Homolka. Homolka is already serving concurrent 12-year sentences after pleading guilty to manslaughter in a plea bargain for her involvement in the deaths of French and Mahaffy. As well, Homolka has already admitted her participation in the fatal attack on her sister Tammy, as well as an August, 1991, assault of another teenager, identified only as Jane Doe, who survived and may testify against Bernardo. Even if Rosen succeeds in casting doubt on Homolka's version of those events, the Crown has shown the eight-man, four-woman jury another devastating piece of evidence - 3½ hours of home-made videotapes depicting the rapes of all four girls.
In his cross-examination last week, Rosen focused on Homolka's behavior before and after the December, 1990, rape of Tammy Homolka. Homolka maintains that incident changed her relationship with Bernardo, and influenced her subsequent behavior. She says that he cajoled her into participating in the assault, then blackmailed her into staying with him and taking part in other criminal acts by threatening to tell her family how Tammy died. Homolka contends that she was trapped in a loveless relationship poisoned by sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
Rosen introduced dozens of greeting cards with handwritten love notes that Homolka sent Bernardo. The cards, according to Rosen, serve as a record of the relationship - revealing, among other things, sexual practices, quarrels and her obsessive love for him. By late November, 1987, six weeks after meeting Bernardo by chance at a Scarborough hotel and spending the night with him, she told him, in writing, that she trusted him completely and closed with: "You're wonderful. You're the best, my prince. I love you." And in March, 1993, in anticipation of Bernardo's return from a trip to Florida, Homolka wrote: "Yea! My honey bunny is home. Let's never be that far apart again."
Rosen claimed that in the summer of 1990, the relationship took a dangerous turn when Bernardo became sexually attracted to Tammy. He questioned Homolka about an incident in July of that year in which Bernardo and Tammy drove to New York state to buy alcohol for a party - a trip that should have taken less than 30 minutes but lasted five hours. Although Homolka denied it, Rosen maintained that she became suspicious that something had occurred between her sister and Bernardo. In a jealous rage, he said, Homolka took her revenge by drugging Tammy with valium and allowing her fiancé to rape her. "What you did was say that, if my little sister thinks playing with fire isn't going to get her burned, I'll show her what this is all about," Rosen said.
Although Homolka maintains that she was consumed with guilt and remorse after Tammy's death, Rosen argued that the tragedy barely affected her. He also claimed that, far from being trapped into staying with Bernardo, she chose him over her family. In mid-January, 1991, the Homolkas suggested to their daughter that Bernardo, who was living in their home, ought to leave and let them grieve Tammy's death as a family. Homolka acknowledged that Bernardo then became incensed, said he would never sleep in the Homolka home again, and left with Karla in tow. They spent a weekend together in hotels in nearby Burlington, Ont., then leased their now-notorious Cape Cod-style clapboard home in St. Catharines, which they furnished entirely on credit. In a letter written to a friend at the time, Homolka proudly declared: "Finally, I have some happiness in my life. Paul and I are moving in together. We are going to live in sin."
At the same time, she continued to make lavish plans for her June 29 wedding, despite the objections of her parents. The Homolkas complained that they couldn't afford the wedding because of the expense of Tammy's funeral, and asked their daughter to postpone it for a year. Bernardo, who was unemployed at the time, angrily told his future in-laws that they should mortgage their house instead. Homolka expressed her own feelings in a February, 1991, letter to a friend, which Rosen read in court. "My wedding plans are going great, except that my parents are being --holes," she said. "They pulled half of the money out ... and now me and Paul will have to pay for $7,000 to $8,000 of this wedding. My father doesn't even want us to have a wedding. He hasn't worked (except for one day) since Tammy died. He's wallowing in his grief." A grief which, Rosen said, Homolka neither shared nor understood because she could think of nothing but herself and her marriage to Paul Bernardo.
Maclean's July 17, 1995