Manitoba

Man accused of killing 4 Indigenous women must face jury, Manitoba judge rules

A judge has dismissed an application from a Winnipeg man accused of killing four Indigenous women to have his upcoming trial heard by a judge alone, instead of the jury scheduled to hear it this spring.

Jeremy Skibicki, charged in deaths of 4 women, argued he should be allowed to opt for a judge-alone trial

The faces of three First Nations women are pictured side by side.
Jeremy Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Morgan Beatrice Harris, left, Marcedes Myran, centre, and Rebecca Contois. Police have also charged him in the death of a fourth, unidentified woman, whom community members have named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman. (Submitted by Cambria Harris, Donna Bartlett and Darryl Contois)

A judge has dismissed an application from a Winnipeg man accused of killing four Indigenous women to have his upcoming trial heard by a judge alone, instead of the jury scheduled to hear it this spring.

Jeremy Skibicki, 36, pleaded not guilty in November to four counts of first-degree murder in the 2022 deaths of three First Nations women — Marcedes Myran, 26, Morgan Harris, 39, and Rebecca Contois, 24 — and a fourth, unidentified woman, who has been given the name Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman, by the community.

Police have said they believe that woman was Indigenous and in her 20s. While Contois's remains have been recovered, police have said they believe Myran's and Harris's remains are in the Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg.

Skibicki's trial was automatically scheduled to be held before a jury because it involves murder, which is among a short list of charges to be treated that way under the Criminal Code. The Crown usually must consent before murder charges can be heard by judge alone.

Skibicki's lawyers argued during pretrial motions in November, where family of the women killed packed the courtroom, that he should be allowed to have his case heard by a judge alone, even though the Crown did not give consent.

Crown attorney Chris Vanderhooft said at the time that it serves the public interest to have Skibicki's case decided by a jury.

Skibicki's lawyers argued before Manitoba Court of King's Bench Justice Glenn Joyal that the requirement for Crown consent is arbitrary, that the section of the Criminal Code that includes that requirement is unconstitutional, and that an accused should be allowed to choose the type of trial, no matter what the charge.

mugshot of bearded man
Jeremy Skibicki's trial is scheduled to begin in April. (Jeremy Skibicki/Facebook)

Joyal delivered a written judgment on the issue on Wednesday, ruling the Crown's discretion to choose whether to consent to changing the trial to appear before a judge alone isn't unconstitutional.

He didn't agree with Skibicki's lawyers' arguments that the rule requiring the Crown's consent amounts to "an objectional Crown veto."

"It would appear from the affidavit evidence and the submission of the accused that he objects to the fact that [it] requires anyone's consent but his own," Joyal wrote, adding there was "little in the way of adjudicative facts" supporting Skibicki's challenge.

No right to trial by judge

While people accused of crimes in Canada generally have the right to have their trial heard by a jury, there is no right to appear before only a judge, the decision said.

"Despite the accused's argument, there does not exist an unfettered right to choose a mode of trial," Joyal wrote.

The ruling also said other courts across Canada have already dismissed similar challenges.

There's a "long-recognized importance of the jury trial as a social institution that serves both individual and societal interests," the decision said.

Without any evidence from Skibicki that there was an abuse of process by the Crown or a breach of his right to a fair trial, "there is no requirement that everything be treated the same … or that the defence have complete control to direct all trial procedures."

"An accused person is entitled to fair procedures, but not the most advantageous trial procedure possible in any given case," Joyal wrote.

The judge also rejected the argument that not allowing Skibicki to switch to a judge-alone trial violates his Charter rights to be considered innocent until proven guilty and have a fair trial before an impartial tribunal.

An aerial shot shows a vast, snow-covered field.
An aerial view shows the Prairie Green landfill in the rural municipality of Rosser in Manitoba, which police believe holds the remains of two women whose deaths Jeremy Skibicki is charged in. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

"In the present case, the accused has in no way provided the court with anything resembling evidence that would suggest that his right to a fair trial is imperilled by his currently scheduled jury trial," Joyal wrote.

"Absent something more, it cannot and should not be assumed that a trial by jury is inherently unfair."

No evidence of abuse of process

Joyal also found judges can override the Crown's refusal to consent to a judge-alone trial "in circumstances of an abuse of process or where a breach of the accused's fair trial rights will result."

The judge said he found that option "reinforces the constitutionality" of the requirement — but that in Skibicki's case, there was no evidence brought forward to suggest a jury would make it impossible for him to have a fair trial, and he "conceded the non-existence" of any abuse of process by the Crown.

Skibicki's six-week trial is scheduled to begin April 29, while jury selection is slated for April 25.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Caitlyn Gowriluk has been writing for CBC Manitoba since 2019. Her work has also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, and in 2021 she was part of an award-winning team recognized by the Radio Television Digital News Association for its breaking news coverage of COVID-19 vaccines. Get in touch with her at caitlyn.gowriluk@cbc.ca.

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