When Karla Homolka headed to Joliette, Quebec, last week to face a Crown application to restrict her freedom, the media frenzy resulted in tsunami-like news coverage. For three days Homolka was once again a media darling, the killer we love to hate.
Why is the Bernardo/Homolka case considered a news story of monumental importance? Admittedly, their crime spree was shocking and makes for a compelling narrative, but, sadly, there are many gruesome murder stories to be found in Canada. Most of them eventually fade into obscurity. Not this one.
I have always wondered whether the media are catering to the public's apparent appetite for the macabre and sinister, or if they implant and nurture this appetite by their constant overexposure of the cruel side of humanity.
Just 150 years ago, the same spectators who lined up for hours to attend the 1995 Bernardo trial would have been the unruly bunch attending public executions in the great British tradition of eating greasy meat pies while reading broadsheets chronicling the life and times of the poor scoundrel dangling on the gallows before their eyes.
Despite our apparent voyeuristic curiosity about killers and criminals, many people have complained that the media coverage of Bernardo and Homolka has been excessive and obsessive. Some journalists have candidly admitted to me that they're sick and tired of the headline attention given to this story, but news executives continue to view murder stories as good copy.
The fascination with murder may have less to do with the public's right (and demand) to know and more to do with the media's delight in the telling of tales of the dark side. Even though the murder rate in Canada declined throughout the 1990s, the reporting of murder stories by our major networks doubled during this same period.
Last week's hearing was widely promoted as an extraordinary and unique legal event. In actuality, hundreds of preventive peace bonds have been issued across Canada since the enactment of the law in 1993.
Imposing peace bond restrictions on offenders who have served their full sentences and have supposedly paid their debt to society does engage serious moral and legal issues relating to double punishment. There are contentious issues relating to how far the state can intrude into the life of a free citizen, and acknowledged problems with predictions of future dangerousness.
But these have already been debated in cases of relative obscurity. And although the debate over these issues is far from completely resolved, it could not be said that the Homolka application was an extraordinary legal event. It was rather pedestrian.
Even if the Homolka hearing was not truly groundbreaking, it could be said that the extensive coverage it received served to mollify the public's instinctive and justifiable anger in the face of a perceived injustice.
Twelve years in prison, whether the product of negotiations or not, was an unfit sentence for Homolka regardless of whether she was a ringleader or follower. At a visceral level, the moral universe seemed painfully out of balance at the prospect of Homolka achieving unrestricted freedom at the age of 35.
So in some ways the hearing, and the excessive media attention, may have been part of an unconscious ritual seeking the restoration of moral balance.
On the other hand, the media attention can reopen old wounds. It must not be forgotten that the government itself set the media circus on course by letting this case initially unfold in an atmosphere of secrecy and confusion with a publication ban on the sentencing of Homolka shortly after she secured her deal.
The government took the position that the details of Homolka's crime and of her deal should not be disclosed to the public in order to protect Bernardo's right to a fair trial two years later. I always felt that the ban was sought to shield the deal from immediate scrutiny and likely condemnation.
More significantly, the publication ban clearly spawned curiosity and morbid speculation, and by the time Bernardo's trial took place, the media had been driven wild after sitting on court-ordered forbidden fruit.
When the horrific videotapes were recovered more than a year after Homolka inked her sweet deal, much of the interest in the case should have waned, as there remained little uncertainty that this young couple were the actual killers.
But Bernardo and Homolka were a charming and attractive couple. Bernardo had a baby face, and at times Homolka could look angelic. The story seemed to take on greater newsworthiness simply because it resonated with our regrettable cultural preference for the beautiful people of the world.
As crass as it sounds, Bernardo and Homolka did not surpass the cruelty of other Canadians. Clifford Olson murdered 11 children in the 1980s. Russel Johnson killed anywhere from seven to 17 women in the 1960s and 70s. And Jimmy Odo committed numerous ritual sacrifices in Atlantic Canada in the 80s. Not even the current investigation into the murders of dozens of prostitutes out West has garnered as much ink as Homolka.
One year after Bernardo was found guilty, John Martin Crawford was convicted for three murders committed in Saskatchewan. He'd been on parole for a 1982 manslaughter conviction and was the prime suspect in three other murders. This guy killed at least twice as many people as Bernardo and Homolka, but where was the national media at this trial? Nobody knows this killer. Why? He was ugly and his victims were poor aboriginal women.
The danger of transforming a criminal proceedings into a media circus is that celebrity status is inevitably bestowed upon the criminal, especially the attractive and charming.
I fail to see anything newsworthy in publishing Homolka's cute baby pictures, or in the lengthy and precise details of her court clothes and the changes in her hairstyle and colour. I'm also troubled by the biographical sketches of her childhood, her life before Paul, her friends and her hobbies. Focusing on these aspects of the story undercuts the potential the coverage could have for public healing.
It must not be forgotten that psychopaths and sadists yearn to feel larger than life and that they thrive on inflicting pain and instilling fear.
So for a few days last week I suspect that Homolka felt smug and content in the knowledge that all of Canada was watching her case with morbid curiosity. The media may have set out to serve the public interest, but in all likelihood the intense coverage has served Homolka's interest, making a psychopath's dream come true.