The porch at Peter and Lesley Parrott's farm northwest of Toronto overlooks rolling hills, a lawn of scattered daffodils and a heart-shaped flower bed adorned by a weeping crab-apple tree. The tree was planted on Sept. 28, 1995 - what would have been their daughter Alison's 21st birthday. Nearby, a white spruce marks her birth and another tree the anniversary of her brutal murder on July 25, 1986, when she was only 11. "A very telling thing for me, in terms of healing, is that I couldn't stand spring," said Lesley, as chickadees sang and bees buzzed among the bluebells and crocuses. "It was like a knife going through my heart - all the life coming back. But when we started gardening, my attitude changed."
Last week, the Parrotts took refuge at the country home they often visited with their daughter. They had just been compelled to relive the horror of their daughter's death, sitting through the month-long trial of her killer, capped by a jury deliberation that stretched over six long days. Francis Carl Roy, 41, was finally sentenced to life in prison for viciously raping and strangling the child, but not before a furious debate erupted over legal issues in the case. After the six men and six women were sequestered, it was learned that a wide range of seemingly relevant evidence was kept from them, most notably Roy's two prior convictions for rape.
Both of those crimes involved teenagers lured away from public places by plausible stories, as Alison was. Both were horrifyingly cruel and took place in wooded areas; Alison's body was found in a west-end Toronto park. But Justice David Watt, one of Canada's most respected murder trial judges, ruled that the jury was not permitted to hear about the prior convictions: under a 1988 Supreme Court of Canada decision, judges have the discretion to exclude such evidence if it would prejudice the accused's right to a fair trial. The outcry grew so intense that Justice Minister Anne McLellan announced that her department will consider taking steps to change the law.
The Parrotts are adamant that the jury should have been made aware of the convictions, as well as other excluded evidence. In a joint statement to a crush of reporters after Roy's trial, Lesley, an advertising executive, and her husband, Peter, a civil engineer, questioned the decisions that prevented the jury from hearing about "achingly and cunningly" similar crimes previously committed by Roy. They also emphasized that Roy was out on parole when he attacked Alison, and slammed the system that failed to protect her. "There may be some good answers, but I would really ask the public and media to re-examine our laws and the balance of how those are interpreted," Lesley Parrott said. The self-possession that allowed her to deliver the compelling speech, she later told Maclean's, comes from being the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and the mother of a daughter lost to tragedy. "I've always understood that when I've had to speak - since Alison was murdered - some power comes through that is bigger than me," she said.
The Parrotts' plea for change was only the most poignant example of the widespread outrage over the case. Almost everywhere, from newspaper columns to schoolyards, Canadians questioned the fact that the public had a more complete picture of the evidence than those charged with the onerous duty of determining Roy's fate. Commentators asked why, when juries are trusted with such a huge responsibility, are they not also trusted with the same information available to the police, the Crown, the defence counsel, the judge - even the media?
But most legal experts supported Justice David Watt's decision to exclude the convictions, as well as other evidence deemed prejudicial to Roy. In fact, some of them said, the passions aroused by the case - what Toronto defense counsel Alan Gold, head of the Criminal Lawyers' Association termed "hysteria" - were ample evidence of the need for the well-established rule giving a judge discretion to exclude such evidence. "When feelings run strong, that's exactly when reasonable people should get a grip on themselves," Gold said.
Maybe so, but many Canadians counter that the law excluding such evidence simply runs counter to common sense, particularly as it was applied in the Parrott case. Although DNA evidence incontrovertibly placed Roy at the scene - semen on seven swabs taken from Alison's ripped vagina was found to be his - Roy claimed that he had happened upon her dead body in the Toronto park while out running and inserted a finger inside her. There was residual semen on his finger, he said, because he had masturbated that morning. The Crown called that explanation preposterous, but Roy's contention that he never saw Alison when she was alive was bolstered by the testimony of three eyewitnesses that they had seen Alison with a man the morning she disappeared - and that he was white (Roy is aboriginal).
Given that explanation - which, taking into account the length of the deliberation, may have raised the possibility of a reasonable doubt in at least one juror's mind - the evidence of prior rapes was relevant information that should have been heard by the jury, many concluded. Some observers also said it would have provided a counterbalance to one of the defence's main arguments: that Roy was not intelligent enough to have executed the crime. So infuriating was the exclusion that one of Roy's victims - whose testimony about the obvious pleasure Roy took in causing pain when he raped her in 1980 was presented at his preliminary hearing - waived her right to privacy as the deliberations dragged on. "I sat chain-smoking and scanning the Internet for six days," Helga Sonier, 33, told Maclean's from her home in New Zealand. "That's when I started to get really angry. Surely if a jury is given the huge responsibility of deciding someone's life, they are intelligent enough to weigh all of the evidence." Sonier, who has two children aged 6 and 4, decided with her husband to move from Toronto after they were born because New Zealand, she felt, was safer.
But what may seem to be a highly artificial rule is a well-established practice in Canadian criminal courts. The law has existed in its present form since 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a murder case named after the accused, Lawrence Corbett, that if evidence of a prior conviction would do more to prejudice an accused's right to a fair trial than provide evidence of guilt or innocence, the trial judge has the discretion to exclude such evidence. The danger being guarded against, criminal lawyers say, is that a jury may either jump to the conclusion that the accused has committed a similar crime, or that he is such a reprehensible character that he should be punished whether guilty or not. (A criminal record may be introduced if it is found to be what lawyers call similar-fact evidence: when the details of a prior crime are so strikingly similar to the crime being tried, that they amount to a hallmark, or signature, the evidence is likely to be admitted. The Crown's attempt to introduce the prior rape convictions under this exception failed.) "I completely understand people's reaction to this law," says Hamar Foster, associate dean at the faculty of law, University of Victoria. "But it is not a silly or ridiculous law. The judge is given the discretion to decide whether or not the evidence will only have the effect of inflaming suspicion and distracting the jury from the job of analyzing the evidence." Added Foster: "Lets not forget the three M's - Morin, Milgaard and Marshall" - referring to Canadian cases in which the accused were falsely convicted of murder.
But even some criminal law experts who support the law say that it is elitist, and assumes juries lack the intellectual skills to weigh evidence and the emotional control to keep their passions in check. A few go even further and condemn the law outright. Michael Mandel, professor of criminal law at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School, says that courts should stop treating juries like "babies" and start entrusting them with more information. "Every human being on the planet except defence lawyers thinks this was relevant information to know," says Mandel of the Roy trial. "I wouldn't let such evidence in in every case, because it might not be relevant, but in this case, the evidence was so powerful."
A range of other evidence was also kept from the jury, including much of the police work that went into solving the case. And in some instances, it revealed that the Parrotts were forced to wait much longer than may have been necessary to find out who killed their daughter. To be sure, the case was not an easy one. On the morning she died, Alison received a phone call from a man pretending to be a photographer. He asked if she would meet him outside Varsity Stadium, four subway stops from her home, for a photo session with other young athletes. Because she was told Alison would be part of a group, Lesley Parrott gave her approval. Her nude, bruised body, curled in the fetal position, was found two days later. An autopsy revealed that she had been bound, gagged and raped while alive.
Police initially interviewed more than 18,000 people who thought they might have seen Alison. They also questioned dozens of potential suspects, including Roy. He came to their attention partly because he trained at the same facility used by the track club Alison belonged to, and partly because of his criminal record. But the police bought his alibi - that he was running at about the time Alison went missing and later went to a bar with a friend - and he was quickly cleared. After that, the trail went cold until 1989, when two Vancouver police officers arrested a man for stealing a block of cheese. The man became an informant who told constables Doug Fell and Mark Wolthers that Roy, who moved to Vancouver in 1988, should be a suspect in the slayings of prostitutes in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant area that year. The source said Roy was seen emerging from bushes with a prostitute, and thought he had hidden something in the shrubbery. "Under a rock I found a big knife and an Indian rope, intertwined with wire," Wolthers told Maclean's. "We called in the bosses but the information, from two guys with five years on the job, seemed to be far-fetched. It wasn't going to be pursued. It was extremely frustrating."
Still, the two officers didn't let the case rest. In 1996, they gave their information to Christine Wozney, a Vancouver-based RCMP corporal who was running ViCLAS, the new database designed to solve cases by finding similar patterns in apparently unlinked crimes. Wozney eventually got the personal attention of Vic Matanovic, a detective in Toronto's historical homicide section. Matanovic assigned two officers to tail Roy, who had moved back to the city in 1991: they followed him into two Toronto bars and collected his used cigarette butts. DNA samples from saliva on the butts matched the semen found inside Alison, leading to Roy's arrest in July, 1996. Only now are police in British Columbia developing DNA samples from the murdered prostitutes to see if Roy can be connected to the cases.
The Parrotts, who also have a 21-year-old son, do not believe in capital punishment: in fact, Roy attended a 1987 rally during which Lesley gave a speech on the topic. But she now feels there are more important issues to be addressed, such as what the justice and parole systems should do with repeat sexual offenders. "It's not treated seriously enough by judges, by our laws, by society at large," she says. "Crimes of property are treated much more seriously. It's ridiculous."
If her daughter's murder case results in changes, especially to the rules of evidence, Lesley Parrott would feel "enormous gratification that Alison's death hasn't gone unnoticed, that she can make a difference," she says. "She would have been very outspoken, a very strong, determined person. Her spirit must live." Whatever changes legislators might make, Parrott hopes it is done "carefully, fairly and thoughtfully" to rebalance the scales of justice, to find the type of equilibrium she and her husband experience by puttering around the garden - where their daughter's spirit seems to live on in the fresh green buds on the trees.
Maclean's April 26, 1999