January 9, 2008 / 12:28 AM / 10 years ago

Surprise appeal in Pickton case

<p>Robert Pickton is seen in an undated television news grab. Prosecutors are acting strategically by appealing serial killer Pickton's conviction on reduced murder charges, a senior provincial official said on Monday.Global TV</p>

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Prosecutors asked for a new trial for Canadian serial killer Robert "Willie" Pickton on Monday, saying he should have faced all 26 murders counts and not just the six he was found guilty of last month.

In a surprise appeal of last month's verdict, prosecutors said the trial judge erred when he ordered the criminal case against the Vancouver-area pig farmer split into two separate trials -- the second of which has yet to begin.

Pickton was convicted in the first trial of the murders of six Vancouver sex trade workers, whose bodies were cut up in his farm's slaughterhouse and some of their remains fed to the animals.

But the jury found Pickton guilty of a reduced charge of second degree murder, and not the first degree murders he was charged with. The lesser charge meant jurors did not believe Pickton planned the killings in advance.

Attorney General Wally Oppal said the appeal was filed largely for strategic reasons, and did not mean prosecutors were saying last month's verdict was wrong.

"I think it is safe to say that we all agree it was a just verdict," Oppal told a news conference.

The former head of the police investigation complained after the verdict that Pickton would have been convicted of first degree murder had jurors heard some of the evidence that was tossed out by Judge James Williams.

The notice filed by prosecutors on Monday asks that Pickton be tried for first degree murder.

Having prosecutors file an appeal, rather than letting just the defense lawyers do it, will give the government more options in a retrial should the appeal courts throw out the original verdict, Oppal said.

Pickton's lawyers have not yet filed an appeal, but are expected to do so. Prosecutors said they will drop their appeal if Pickton's lawyers do not challenge last month's verdict.

Both first-degree and second-degree murder verdicts carry mandatory sentences of life in prison, but the conviction on a reduced charge makes it somewhat easier to apply for parole. Canada does not have a death penalty, and the judge said Pickton, 58, cannot ask for parole for 25 years.

The six victims were among more than 60 Vancouver prostitutes who disappeared from the Pacific Coast city from the late 1980s until shortly before Pickton's arrest in February 2002.

The judge split the case in two because of fears that holding a single trial on 26 charges would make too difficult to get a jury. Juror's in Pickton's initial trial listed to nearly 130 witnesses over 10 months.

Prosecutors said in a notice of appeal that the judge erred by not telling the jury that evidence showing Pickton dismembered the bodies could be used to show he planned the murders.

They also said the judge made a mistake by changing his mind and telling jurors midway through the trial that they should ignore evidence about the bones of an unidentified woman that were found on Pickton's farm in suburban Port Coquitlam, British Columbia.

Pickton had been charged with the woman's murder, but the court dropped the charge before the jury was selected because police were never able to determine her identity or exactly when she died.

Reporting by Allan Dowd, Editing by Rob Wilson

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