December 6, 2007 / 6:57 PM / in 10 years

Canada serial killing trial stalls in confusion

NEW WESTMINSTER, British Columbia (Reuters) - The trial of accused Canadian serial killer Robert “Willie” Pickton fell into confusion on Thursday with the judge admitting he made a mistake during his instructions to the jury.

<p>Accused serial killer Robert Pickton (C) stands before Justice James Williams (background) in a New Westminster, British Columbia court in this courtroom sketch December 9, 2006. REUTERS/Felicity Don</p>

Judge James Williams took the rare step of suspending jury deliberations for a brief time so he could clarify instructions on the law that he gave jurors last week about three of the six murder counts Pickton is facing.

“I regret that I misinformed you, it was inadvertent,” a solemn sounding Williams told the panel of seven men and five women who have been deliberating Pickton’s fate since late on Friday.

The surprise developments came shortly after the jury asked Williams a question about whether they can find Pickton guilty of murder if he was “indirectly” involved in one or more of the six deaths he is on trial for.

The jury’s question appears aimed at whether the circumstantial evidence at the heart of the prosecution case -- including human remains found on Pickton’s pig farm near Vancouver, British Columbia -- proved he was the actual killer.

Williams told jury members they were not required to decide that Pickton acted alone, but they must also conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he played an active role in the deaths.

After suspending deliberations, Williams brought the jury back to clarify what was needed to decide if Pickton was an active participant in three of the murder counts.

The instructions are important because the jurors are allowed to use some of the decisions they make on those counts in determining if Pickton is guilty of all six charges.

Pickton is on trial in British Columbia Supreme Court for six murders, although he has been charged with a total of 26. He will be tried on the remaining 20 charges later.

Police allege Pickton, 58, lured prostitutes from Vancouver’s poor Downtown Eastside to his suburban farm, where they say he killed them, chopped up their bodies in the farm’s slaughterhouse and disposed of the remains.

The prosecution called a witness who said she saw Pickton cutting up a body, and another witness who said Pickton described how he killed the women. There was also a police video in which Pickton signaled he killed 49 women.

There was no witness who said they saw Pickton do the killings.

The defense argued that body parts found on the farm did not prove Pickton was the murderer, and that police ignored other possible suspects.

They also dismissed the prosecution witnesses as liars and said that, in the video, Pickton was simply repeating information the police had presented to him.

Pickton is charged with first degree murder, but the jury has the option of convicting him on lesser charges of second degree murder or manslaughter.

First and second degree murder could bring life sentences. Canada does not have a death penalty.

Reporting by Allan Dowd; Editing by Rob Wilson

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