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Canada's 'O.J.' Trial Won't Be Media Circus

But with press bans, will accused killer get a fair trial?

PAUL BERNARDO'S murder trial will be nothing like O.J. Simpson's. And that is precisely the way many Canadians prefer it.

No lawyers mugging for television cameras, no TV lights, no CNN following the defendant's every facial expression. Television has been banned from court proceedings in Canada's biggest criminal trial in decades, the opening arguments of which begin today.

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Even newspaper reporting has been sharply curtailed in a case that promises to highlight the differences between the closeted British-style Canadian judicial system and that of the United States.

''In the Simpson case, the press has been allowed to print all kinds of things and TV coverage has been excessive,'' says Clayton Ruby, a well-known Canadian criminal-defense lawyer. ''We [in Canada] simply don't allow that kind of circus.''

Perhaps not. But while judges in Canada often place reporting bans on all or part of a trial to limit sensationalism and produce a fair trial for the accused, some worry the process is not open enough.

''Clearly some Canadians are glued to their sets in fascination with the O.J. trial, and think it's ridiculous that they shouldn't have similar access,'' says Brian Rogers, past chairman of the Canadian Bar Association's media and communications law section. ''There's no doubt people have questions about how the whole process works. It seems very mysterious and abstract to most people in our society, a world unto itself,'' he says.

Press muzzled

Especially in light of recent cases of wrongful conviction in Canada, the nation's judicial system needs openness to sustain public confidence, he and others say.

''I am horrified by some of the arguments that have been made [to restrain media coverage],'' says Harold Levy, legal- affairs reporter for the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily. ''I'm not allowed right now to even talk to you about any legal issues in that [Bernardo] court. The result is that the public is left in doubt about the law and the efficacy of the Canadian justice system.''

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The case has both revulsed and fascinated the Canadian public since May 1993, when Mr. Bernardo and his former wife, Karla Homolka, were charged with the sex-related killings of two young women. Ms. Homolka was convicted of manslaughter in July of that year.

But for the past two years there has been a reporting ban on nearly all details of her trial, pending Bernardo's trial. Many say the ban has spawned rumors and inflated Canadians' interest in the case. Others wonder if Homolka got a fair trial, or whether her 12-year prison sentence for manslaughter was too lenient.

''Critics of the Homolka trial says no one will ever know whether Bernardo is getting the shaft because prosecutors worked a sweet deal with Homolka in exchange for her testimony against him,'' Mr. Ruby says. ''That's the obvious downside of the ban.''

Still, there is little indication that more open criminal-court proceedings are a priority. Alan Young, a criminal lawyer and professor of law at Toronto's York University, says that since the Simpson case, ''many Canadian lawyers have taken on an air of superiority because they see it as overly influenced by a circus mentality.''

Sanctified courtroom

In contrast with the Simpson trial, the Bernardo trial will take place in an atmosphere of almost 18th-century decorum. Lawyers will wear black gowns with high white collars -- not snappy Armani suits. And in some high courts, judges are still addressed as ''my lord'' or ''my lady.''

Such ritualized features have a powerful impact on the dynamic of court proceedings, ''a feeling of sanctity, an almost religious feeling,'' Professor Young says, ''whereas American courts are truly secular'' and create a mood of stark confrontation repellent to Canadians.

There are other differences: Unlike the Simpson case there are no ''alternate'' jurors to fill in if jurors drop out of the case. If the number drops below 10, a mistrial is declared.

Also, unlike Simpson's jury, Bernardo's jury will not be sequestered. Sequestration is unusual in Canada. Instead, they will be allowed to go home at night with jurors swearing on their honor to not view or read material related to the case.

There won't be the high-glitz level of the trial of the former Buffalo Bills football star. But in terms of public fascination with the case, money and time spent, and caliber of prosecutor and defense teams, Bernardo is indeed the Canadian equivalent of O.J. And Canada's lower-key ''trial of the century'' is unlikely to pass without at least a touch of the detested news-media circus.

Although banned from the courtroom itself, television crews have perched themselves like birds of prey on layers of scaffolding erected across the street from the downtown Toronto courthouse. Regular live broadcasts will report indirectly the goings-on inside.

But even those who predict that television will inevitably arrive in the Canadian courtroom agree that lawyer-and-witness showmanship is a phenomenon most Canadians definitely don't want to import.

''Canadians believe the presence of cameras has created a show-biz aspect to the Simpson trial,'' Mr. Rogers says. ''That's not something they want to see happen here.''

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