Families of Bernardo’s Victims Seek Access to Records Ahead of Parole Hearings

Families of Bernardo's Victims Seek Access to Records Ahead of Parole Hearings
Paul Bernardo sits in the back of a police cruiser as he leaves a hearing in St. Catharines, Ont., April 5, 1994. The federal public safety minister says reports of teen killer and serial rapist Paul Bernardo being transferred to a medium-security prison are “shocking and incomprehensible.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Families of the victims of serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo are taking their fight to the Supreme Court of Canada, as they seek access to his records in preparation for future parole hearings. For years, they have been denied copies of documents used during Bernardo’s parole hearings due to privacy laws, according to federal court documents.

These records include psychological assessments, treatment records, case management reports, and audio recordings of the hearings themselves. The victims’ families argue that access to these documents is crucial for preparing “meaningful” victim impact statements. Their lawyer, Tim Danson, has accused Bernardo of “manipulating the system” and lying about evidence at previous parole hearings. “How is it that we have a public parole hearing and the evidence that is being presented at that hearing is somehow secret?” Danson questioned.

Furthermore, Danson argued that it is in the public interest for the documents to be released so that Canadians can decide if the system is working properly. “It’s not just what [Bernardo] says but how he says it,” he said, describing the chilling way Bernardo talks about his crimes during parole hearings.

A lawyer representing the families of Paul Bernardo’s victims says they weren’t given enough notice about the serial killer’s transfer from a maximum security prison to a medium security facility. They have joined advocates who say there is a gap in the law that needs to be amended so victims can be consulted in future transfer cases.

Despite their efforts, the families’ access-to-information requests were denied by the Parole Board of Canada and the Correctional Service of Canada roughly five years ago. The Federal Court also turned them down, and this decision was upheld by the Federal Court of Appeal in July. The appeal court judge concluded that releasing such records would be a “total invasion” of the offender’s privacy rights. The judge also noted that the parole board is not an adjudicative tribunal and should not be treated like an open court where records can be made public.

This move to the Supreme Court comes after the victims’ families were kept in the dark about Bernardo’s controversial transfer from a maximum to medium-security prison earlier this spring. CBC News was recently granted permission to listen to parole hearings for three notorious murderers, including Bernardo, under strict conditions that included not recording or broadcasting the audio. The recordings showed how the victims’ families have used their impact statements at parole hearings to speak out about their lack of access to crucial documents.

Kristen French was 15 and Leslie Mahaffy was 14 when Paul Bernardo kidnapped, tortured and killed them. (Handout/The Canadian Press)

Bernardo is currently serving a life sentence for the kidnapping, sexual assault, and killing of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French in the 1990s, along with a conviction of manslaughter in the death of his sister-in-law, Tammy Homolka. His wife at the time, Karla Homolka, served 12 years in prison for her role in those crimes. Bernardo has admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women.

Victims’ families have been preparing for Bernardo’s next parole hearing, which is expected to take place in the new year. However, with the Supreme Court yet to decide on their application for leave to appeal, it is unlikely that they will have access to the records they seek before then.

According to CBC News, “the delays in parole hearings create additional stress for the families, who are already struggling with having to attend hearings every two years.” Danson explained that “getting ready for the parole hearing and preparing victim impact statements are gut-wrenching for them. Everything comes back. It’s as if the offence occurred recently. So feelings are raw.”