Joshua Brown

Courtroom Trauma

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Burnout on the Bernardo beat. How three reporters lived with a monster

Barbara Brown squats close to the pavement outside the Ontario Courthouse, General Division, at 361 University Avenue in Toronto. Her left arm is straight up in the air, clutching her Sony microcassette tape recorder. Her arm is aching beyond belief. Brown, 43, who describes herself as a “tough-chick crime reporter,” has been on the crime beat for The Spectator, Hamilton’s daily newspaper for seven years. It’s September 1, 1995, and she is one of 50 or 60 reporters forming a circle around Doug French. French is about to comment on the conviction of Paul Bernardo, the man who raped and murdered his daughter. Brown has to keep low to the ground so she doesn’t block all the television cameras at the back of the media scrum. When she looks up, all she sees are heads and microphones-it’s as if she’s caught in a human tent.

Her arm continues to ache. She’s tired from four months of 12-hour workdays, covering Canada’s most sensational murder trial. Tired from filing stories and from meeting early deadlines. But most of all, tired from listening to the most horrendous testimony and evidence she has ever heard.

Minutes after Paul Bernardo is found guilty on nine charges, including two counts of first-degree murder for the slayings of Kristen French, 15, and Leslie Mahaffy, 14, Brown switches on her recorder as Doug French begins to speak. “Finally and as always,” says French, “our final words, for our daughter, with the trial over: Kristie, you can’t be hurt anymore. We love you.”

Brown’s eyes begin to swell with tears. She lowers her arm and crawls out of the media scrum on her hands and knees, then rewinds her tape and plays back French’s message. This time she bursts out crying. She cries and cries and cries. Fellow Spectator reporters Wade Hemsworth and Paul Legall give her a hug and try to console her. Suddenly, Brown hears a clicking sound. As she turns around from the group hug, she notices a photographer snapping pictures of the trio. She can already see the caption: “Spectator reporter collapses at Bernardo trial…”

“I had never cried before. I considered it to be a weakness for a crime reporter to cry,” Brown says now. “But crying is the one thing the Bernardo trial changed in me. Now I feel comfortable doing it. All the other reporters at the trial were crying. I know I’m not alone.”

From May 18 until September 1, 1995, Brown, Hemsworth and Legall witnessed 52 days of testimony at the Bernardo trial. Fifteen or more times they heard videotapes of Bernardo and his ex-wife, Karla Homolka, drugging and sexually assaulting Kristen French, Leslie Mahaffy, Tammy Homolka and another teenage girl identified only as Jane Doe. They saw autopsy pictures of Kristen’s dead body. They heard how Bernardo used a saw to cut Leslie Mahaffy’s body into pieces and how he allegedly strangled Kristen French. The Court evidence and testimony affected their reporting, their emotions and their lives.

“It was a terrible assignment and a great story,” says Hemsworth. “I was pleased to have been asked to cover it, but it was also incredibly upsetting to be in that courtroom.”

The Bernardo trial was one of the biggest and most expensive stories The Spectator has ever covered. The paper spent over $200,000 in salaries, overtime, expenses and computer equipment. Among the costs was rent on a furnished apartment three blocks away from the courthouse.The apartment served as an office for all three reporters and as a home for Brown during the trial.

Managing editor John Gibson hand-picked the Spectator staff to cover the trial based on their experience and ability. In addition to Brown, he chose Legall, 53, a 22-year newspaper veteran now covering courts in Burlington, and Hemsworth, 30, an editor of Ego, a weekly entertainment pull-out section. In 1991, Hemsworth had covered the trial of Steven Olah, who, along with another teenager, beat a 44-year-old man to death with a fire extinguisher because he wanted to experience killing a man; Hemsworth later wrote Killing Time, a book about Olah’s thrill murder. Mr. Justice Patrick LeSage had presided on that case as well, so Hemsworth knew how he operated. Features editor Dan Kislenko coordinated editing the project and served as his liaison between the reporters and Spectator management. Brown and Legall alternated writing a front-page account of each day’s proceedings and a more detailed inside story that put the day’s testimony into the context of the whole case. Hemsworth wrote an emotional reaction column daily. The Spectator was filing to 16 other Southam Newspapers across Canada, from The Vancouver Sun to The Gazettein Montreal which meant additional pressure. “We were going head to head with The Canadian Press,” says Brown. “CP were very aware that we were filing for Southam. But CP filed every half an hour. We were coming home with a full day’s notes. Sometimes we would only have an hour to write the story.” There was also the factor of pack journalism. “We couldn’t get too creative or find a different angle,” recalls Legall. “There was a pressure from management to report what the Toronto papers did.”

The pressure was something the experienced reporters could handle. But being a part of the media covering such a huge event in Canada made them feel uncomfortable at times. “We had to wear these yellow badges to get into the court,” says Hemsworth. “At the beginning of the trial, they felt like a scarlet letter. You could feel the people staring at you like you were a vulture. It felt awful.”

Covering the trial filled the reporters with a guilty pleasure. They were enhancing their careers by following one of the most famous Canadian trials, but at the expense of the victims. “There you are on a very hot national story, and you’re sitting in the courtroom listening to these horrible tapes that are hurting the families of Leslie and Kristen,” says Brown. “It’s like you’re profiting by their loss.”

Hemsworth says he also felt a certain loyalty to the families of the victims since both live within The Spectator’s circulation area. “We wanted people to see that we were treating the story seriously because we live in the broader community where it happened,” says Hemsworth. “It was our story and we felt a greater responsibility for it.” Gibson agrees: “We never wrote a story or published a picture without thinking about the Mahaffy or French family. They’re not 3,000 miles away, but 15 minutes from my office. We were very conscious of that throughout our coverage” .

The Mahaffy and French families were successful in their fight to ban the public from seeing the videotapes of their daughters’ torture. However, Judge LeSage permitted the public to hear the tapes. For the reporters, that was enough-or even too much. Toronto Sun sketch artist Pam Davies wore earplugs during the playing of the tapes.

Brown felt a lot of conflicting emotions: “I believe very strongly in an open court system where the public should see all the evidence,” she explains. “But I felt guilty after I heard the tapes. It was like revictimizing the girls. I think that all the journalists covering the trial were branded by the tapes.” Legall, who has also covered the police beat and has seen horrific things, felt the same way. “Hearing the tapes was pretty chilling. This is the sort of stuff that you are not usually exposed to as a court reporter. It was about as close to a murder as you could possibly get without actually being there. They repulsed and horrified me.”

At times, Hemsworth found himself torn between his human emotions and his obligation to work. “Seeing Bernardo sitting there and knowing what he had done was tough,” he recalls. “You as a person want to go and beat the shit out of him, and you the journalist says, wait a second, write that down. If you keep thinking about how much you hate that bastard, your notebook will be blank at the end of the day.”

One thing that surprised and disturbed Hemsworth was how associations from the trial would crop up in his everyday life. “One night I went over to visit my parents, who live in the west end of Hamilton,” he says. “My mother had just pulled in the driveway with a carload of groceries and decided to go and help her carry them in. When my mother popped the trunk of her car, I saw a car blanket next to the groceries. The blanket was the exact same one as Bernardo used to roll Kristen French’s dead body into before he dumped it into a ditch in north Burlington. I was just so overcome when this happened. I wasn’t prepared for it. It was weird because the moment owned you, you didn’t own the moment.” Hemsworth also can’t listen to “Superman” by R.E.M. on the radio. The song is one of many that Bernardo had playing in the background as he sexually assaulted Leslie Mahaffy on video. Hemsworth says he doesn’t hear the song anymore, just her screams.

All three reporters even dreamed about Bernardo during the trial; Hemsworth still does. In one of his dreams, he is sleeping in a hotel room with Bernardo and his lawyers, John Rosen and Tony Bryant. Hemsworth is sharing a bed with Bernardo while Rosen and Bryant share the other. Hemsworth wakes up to find Bernardo holding a lamp over his head. Instead of smashing it on him, Bernardo says, “Ha ha, just joking.”

But Hemsworth’s most symbolic dream reveals the struggle between being a detached observer and an average person. He is working at his desk when the French family arrives and asks to see him in the reception area of the Spectator newsroom. The family is in tears and Hemsworth notices the other reporters are looking at him oddly. He feels he has to choose between sympathizing with and joining the French family or not crying and joining his colleagues. Hemsworth chooses to cry and hugs the Frenches. “We’re not machines, and part of not being a machine is that you will always be affected by the things you cover,” he says now. “You should let yourself be affected, as long as it doesn’t keep you from seeing the truth.”

None of the Spectator reporters sought any psychiatric help because of the trial, although management made it clear help was available. instead, they relied on their friends, family and each other to express their frustrations and feelings. “I heard The Toronto Star had some couch sessions, but I didn’t see a need for it,” says Brown. “Sometimes Paul, Wade and I would just sit around and talk about the trial. Part of our bond was that we talked about it for five months. Our outside friends and colleagues would find it obsessive, boring and disgusting, but to us it was an endless source of interest.”

Although Hemsworth felt relieved, he was also a little upset that the trial was over. “It was a hateful thing, but you became attached to the process and people you covered it with, and in a strange way, you kind of missed it when it was done. I felt like a soldier who came home from war and couldn’t talk about it with anyone who wasn’t there because they wouldn’t understand. I have a different relationship with Barb and Paul now than before because of the experience we shared.”

However, three days after the trial was over, Barbara Brown needed to be alone. She returned to her apartment in Hamilton, where she lives by herself, and refused to answer her phone. For three days, she watched Little Women and sentimental, black-and-white movies. Sometimes she found herself sobbing. “I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, this feels good-it feels good to cry.’ Normally I would just get misty-eyed, but now I was having a really good cry.”


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