She spends her days locked in a cell at the Prison For Women in Kingston, Ont., isolated from other inmates for her own protection. Her only diversions are a television set, an hour of daily exercise in the prison yard, and the correspondence courses in sociology she takes through nearby Queen's University. But 25-year-old Karla Homolka says she has more "freedom" in prison - where she is serving concurrent 12-year sentences for manslaughter in the slayings of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy - than she ever had in the St. Catharines, Ont., home she shared with her former husband, 30-year-old Paul Bernardo. Last week in the Toronto courtroom where Bernardo is on trial for first-degree murder in the killings, she said she obtained that freedom by cutting a deal with Crown officials under which she would receive a fixed sentence in exchange for testifying against her former husband. And she acknowledged that she left her husband only after she concluded that she was destined to be his next victim.
Homolka revealed the details of her previously secret plea-bargain negotiations for the first time at the conclusion of nine days of questioning by Crown attorney Ray Houlahan. The deal - reached in mid-May, 1993, after extensive negotiations between her lawyer and senior Crown officials in Toronto - caused a public uproar when rumors of its existence began to circulate around the time of her trial two months later. Homolka testified that the agreement required her to tell the truth, and could be cancelled if authorities learned that it was she who had actually carried out the killing of either French or Mahaffy. Under Houlahan's questioning, she maintained that her former husband strangled both girls with a black electrical cord. But Bernardo's principal lawyer, John Rosen, was expected to attack her story, her credibility and the deal she struck with the Crown in a searching cross-examination that was scheduled to begin on July 4 and last for several days.
Despite the apparent safeguards in the agreement, Homolka's deal raised a number of long-standing public concerns about such negotiations, particularly when they involve serious crimes. Many lawyers admit that such privately negotiated plea bargains create skepticism about the justice system. But they also argue that prearranged guilty pleas and sentences are essential to keep the system working. Ronald Delisle, professor of criminal law at Queen's University and a former Ontario provincial court judge, said that in about 90 per cent of criminal cases, the accused person either pleads guilty voluntarily, or makes a deal. "If we try to abolish plea bargaining, there is no way on God's green earth that our society could afford the trials," said Delisle. "The number of judges and lawyers involved would be horrendous."
In fact, experienced criminal lawyers acknowledge that plea bargaining can lead to mistakes - particularly when two or more people are charged in a crime and one of them makes a deal. But negotiated settlements usually work to everyone's benefit by preventing costly, emotionally stressful trials in which victims must face their assailants in court, said William Trudell, vice-president of the Canadian Criminal Lawyers' Association. The negotiations may involve only the Crown and defence lawyers, he said, but in many prominent cases they also consult victims or surviving family members, relatives of the accused and the police. And sentencing is based on a number of factors, including the accused person's sense of remorse and his or her degree of co-operation with police. "I do a lot of murder cases and we are very careful," said Trudell. "The Crown and defence don't come to agreement on a plea bargain in a murder case without seriously doing a lot of hard slugging."
In his opening address to the eight-man, four-woman jury, Houlahan said the Crown made the deal 16 months before obtaining 3½ hours of explicit home-made videotapes depicting the sexual assaults of French and Mahaffy. The tapes, which have been shown to the jury, contain a six-minute segment in which Homolka and Bernardo sexually assault her drugged and unconscious 15-year-old sister, Tammy, who choked to death on her own vomit shortly after the attack ended early on the morning of Dec. 24, 1990. There is also footage from a similar incident with another teenaged girl known only as Jane Doe, who survived the attack and is expected to testify against Bernardo. Homolka's deal shields her from prosecution, however, for these incidents or any other crimes, provided she disclosed her involvement.
As she testified about her negotiations with the Crown, Homolka contradicted previously published accounts of how police came to suspect Bernardo's involvement. Spokesmen for the Metro Toronto police previously claimed that their own investigative efforts had led them to Bernardo, who lived with his parents in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough before moving to St. Catharines in early 1991. But Homolka said that she brought him to their attention when she contacted police on Feb. 9, 1993, and, in an interview with two officers, divulged certain information about her former husband. Two days later, she met with Niagara Falls lawyer George Walker, and on Feb. 13 she authorized him to seek "blanket immunity" in exchange for information relating to the murders of French and Mahaffy.
Within two weeks, Homolka and her parents, Karel and Dorothy, signed a statement containing the outlines of a deal - an arrangement that was dramatically different from the one she had originally been seeking. Instead of "blanket immunity," she was now prepared to plead guilty to two counts of manslaughter and to accept a 10-year sentence. The negotiations continued even after Homolka entered a Toronto hospital in early March for a seven-week psychiatric assessment. While there, she wrote a letter to her parents and another to her sister Lori, now 24, confessing her role in the death of Tammy Homolka.
After being discharged from the hospital in late April, Homolka returned to her parents' home. In mid-May, the negotiations were complete. She finally agreed to a 12-year sentence, apparently to reflect her involvement in Tammy's death. The deal, signed by Murray Segal, director of the Crown's criminal law office, stipulated that she provide "a full, complete and truthful account" of the deaths of French, Mahaffy and her youngest sister, as well as of other crimes in which she was a participant. There was also a clause allowing the Crown to lay additional charges if police discovered that she was lying or had committed perjury. The deal forbids Homolka from giving any public interviews or profiting from the three deaths. Furthermore, the Crown had the option to lay any charges it deemed appropriate if a trial judge refused to accept the agreement.
Since signing the deal, Homolka has spent hundreds of hours being interviewed by police and Crown officials. And despite the videotape evidence, her testimony remains a crucial part of the Crown's case because the murders themselves were not filmed. Throughout Houlahan's lengthy examination, Homolka portrayed herself as someone who was dominated and enslaved by her violent husband. She spoke, usually in a flat, impassive voice, of escalating physical and psychological abuse that culminated in almost daily beatings, with objects ranging from flashlights to pieces of firewood, before she left Bernardo on Jan. 5, 1993.
Homolka spent her first week on the stand dealing with events from October, 1987, when she met Bernardo, until the June, 1991, death of 14-year-old Mahaffy, her wedding two weeks later, and the August, 1991, assault on Jane Doe. She then provided a riveting account of the final horror-filled days of 15-year-old French, whom she and Bernardo kidnapped on April 16, 1992, while the teenager was walking home from school. They held her for almost 72 hours in their St. Catharines bungalow, where she was sexually assaulted and savagely beaten, before murdering her on the morning of April 19 - Easter Sunday - because they were expected later that day at her parents' house for a family dinner. Homolka testified that she could have released French on two occasions when Bernardo went out for food, but decided against it because she was frightened of having to deal with the police, or her enraged husband.
Homolka maintained that her relationship with Bernardo, which she portrayed as having been a loveless sham since the death of Tammy, became a hideous nightmare after the murder of French. In mid-June, she said, he confided to her that their marriage was merely a facade to cover his criminal activities. She testified that he made daily trips to New York state to smuggle cigarettes into Canada, and dragged her along after she finished work at a local veterinary clinic. Homolka also said that he made her accompany him as he cruised the streets of several southern Ontario communities looking for potential rape victims.
She said she attempted to leave her husband around the time of their first anniversary on June 29, 1992, and began removing her possessions with the help of her parents. But Bernardo asked to speak to her privately and threatened to show her mother and father the videotape of Tammy's rape unless she stayed. Homolka's parents finally removed her from the marital home after learning that she had been severely beaten and left with bruises from head to toe. And according to her own words in court last week, she is better off in prison. "I don't have to worry about being threatened and beaten every day," she said. "I have a lot more freedom in prison than I ever had with him."
Maclean's July 10, 1995