Twitchell appeal: media tainted jury

EDMONTON — Mark Twitchell’s appeal of his murder conviction, filed this week, will hinge on proving a miscarriage of justice has occurred.

In his notice of appeal, Twitchell argues that he deserves another trial, this time by judge alone, because unwanted media attention was “so extensive, so blatant and so overly sensationalized that it is unreasonable to expect any unsequestered jury to have remained uninfluenced by it.”

He also raises concerns surrounding his credibility and grounds he believes are sufficient to establish reasonable doubt. (Download: Twitchell Notice of Appeal).

Twitchell is currently serving his life sentence for the luring death and dismemberment of Johnny Altinger at Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. During the trial, he admitted that he lured Altinger and dismembered his body, burned it, dismembered it again and then disposed of the remains down a sewer. He argued, however, that the killing was in self-defence and not a planned attack.

This process of appealing a first-degree murder conviction can take a few months or up to a year to proceed, if it does at all. He will have to convince a panel of three judges that there was an error of law that, had it not happened, would have changed the outcome of the trial.

It may therefore be prudent to revisit an important detail in this case that was not covered at length in the media: who were these 12 people who found Twitchell guilty after five hours of deliberations?

The process of becoming a juror for the trial began with a summons, a random sampling of people living in the area who are compelled to come to court.

In March, a pool of 192 people showed up in the assigned courtroom from the original summons list. The judge then excused those who had a legitimate reason that would prevent them from hearing the case (vacations booked, conflict of interest because they knew someone connected to the case, etc.).

Those left were then randomly selected from the pool for a second list.

One-by-one, each prospective juror picked out for the second list was asked questions through a rare “challenge for cause” procedure.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Terry Clackson read out the following statement to every prospective juror:

“There is a legitimate concern that, on the basis of pre-trial publicity, respective jurors may not be impartial between the prosecution and the defence. Therefore, I’m going to ask you a series of questions designed to explore that concern … These questions are not designed to offend, but to probe your attitude and information. We do this because Mr. Twitchell is entitled to have each member of the jury approach his case with an open mind and decide his fate based only on the evidence presented in the court and the legal instructions given my me. Mark Andrew Twitchell is charged with having murdered Johnny Altinger. The case has had some media attention. It has been reported as the movie-maker who has been charged with murder.”

Justice Clackson then asked each potential juror the following questions:

1. What is your occupation?
2. Have you read, heard or seen anything about this case or the accused in any newspapers, on radio, on TV, on the Internet or through any social media?
3. Have you obtained information about the case from anywhere else?
4. Have you formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence of Mr. Twitchell?

The judge, prosecution and defence each had an opportunity to “challenge” the potential jurors, based on their answers. If a challenge was issued the potential juror was dismissed immediately. No questions asked.

This process continued for seven hours, seeing 46 people questioned out of the pool of 192 people in order to find 12 people and two alternates that everyone was happy with.

On the first day of the trial, one of the jurors revealed to the judge that their status could be an issue (you have to be a Canadian citizen to be a juror). To be safe, this person was removed and the first alternate took their place. The second alternate was then free to leave.

The final jury as the trial began therefore consisted of six men and six women. All of them were employed or retired. Many had post-secondary qualifications.

Out of the 12, seven had heard of the case before, four had never heard of the case, and one wasn’t sure.

The prosecution, defence and the judge had all agreed each juror could hear the case, based on their answers, and would be impartial, fair and decide a verdict strictly on the facts presented in court.

What the jury relied upon to form their guilty verdict, however, will never been known.

In Canada, jurors and their deliberations remain secret forever. It is a crime to identity a juror or to make public any details of their deliberations.

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