Courting Twitter

Founded in 2006, Twitter is a free social media networking website, microblogging service and search engine that lets users read, send and share bite-sized gametes of information called tweets. Its real power is the potential for viral dissemination: the one-to-many instant messaging function made Hurley’s posts accessible to captivated audiences in Ottawa, across Canada and as far-reaching as New Zealand.

The growing use of Twitter as a news publishing platform has ushered a new style of real-time, 24/7 reporting, one that doesn’t stop when journalists leave the newsroom for the day, or when the newspaper pages are sent to a printing press, or when an anchor or radio host signs off at the end of a broadcast. But tweets, which are limited to 140 characters, can be taken out of context, be misinterpreted, be incomprehensible or be inaccurate.

For the Williams case, the Citizen filed a successful pre-hearing request that Judge Scott lift several restrictions imposed in section 136 of the Ontario Courts of Justice Act, on the use of electronics in the courtroom. Here are those constraints, exceptions and the offence:

 Prohibition against photography, etc., at court hearing

136. (1) Subject to subsections (2) and (3), no person shall,

 (a) take or attempt to take a photograph, motion picture, audio recording or other record capable of producing visual or aural representations by electronic means or otherwise,

(i) at a court hearing,

(ii) of any person entering or leaving the room in which a court hearing is to be or has been convened, or

(iii) of any person in the building in which a court hearing is to be or has been convened where there is reasonable ground for believing that the person is there for the purpose of attending or leaving the hearing;

(b) publish, broadcast, reproduce or otherwise disseminate a photograph, motion picture, audio recording or record taken in contravention of clause (a); or

(c) broadcast or reproduce an audio recording made as described in clause

(2) (b). R.S.O. 1990, c. C.43, s. 136 (1).


(2) Nothing in subsection (1),

(a) prohibits a person from unobtrusively making handwritten notes or sketches at a court hearing; or

(b) prohibits a lawyer, a party acting in person or a journalist from unobtrusively making an audio recording at a court hearing, in the manner that has been approved by the judge, for the sole purpose of supplementing or replacing handwritten notes. R.S.O. 1990, c. C.43, s. 136 (2); 1996, c. 25, s. 1 (22).


(3) Subsection (1) does not apply to a photograph, motion picture, audio recording or record made with authorization of the judge,

(a) where required for the presentation of evidence or the making of a record or for any other purpose of the court hearing;

(b) in connection with any investitive, naturalization, ceremonial or other similar proceeding; or

(c) with the consent of the parties and witnesses, for such educational or instructional purposes as the judge approves.


(4) Every person who contravenes this section is guilty of an offence and on conviction is liable to a fine of not more than $25,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than six months, or to both. R.S.O. 1990, c. C.43, s. 136 (3, 4).

According to Scott’s ruling,  journalists from recognized media outlets would be allowed to carry and operate laptops, cell phones, BlackBerry devices and digital audio recorders into the courtroom to file live updates. Members of the public or unaccredited journalists couldn’t. There’d still be no photos, no videos and no audio for broadcast; the journalists’ recordings were solely for note-taking purposes and airing the audio would be an offence, liable for a fine up to $25,000 or a prison term of no more than six months long or both, according to s. 136.

Another offence would be naming or identifying Williams’ first sexual assault victim, referred to in the agreed statement of facts as “Jane Doe,” which would violate a publication ban outlined in section 486.4 of the Criminal Code. Williams’ second victim, his Tweed neighbour Laurie Massicotte, waived the right to have her name withheld and first publicly identified herself in a Maclean’s exclusive published 13 days before the hearing began.

The Williams case was the most prominent use of Twitter in Canadian court to date, but it wasn’t the first. In August 2009, Citizen journalist Glen McGregor tweeted live from the influence-peddling trial of former Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien using the @obrientrial Twitter handle. And in October 2009, columnist Kate Dubinski from the London Free Press sent tweets from her personal account during the Bandidos motorcycle gang murder trial in a courtroom in London, Ontario. But when a star witness, known as M.H., took the stand, she had to take handwritten notes and tweet outside the hallway during recess.

So far, it seemed the media and its lawyers were applying to overrule s. 136 of the Ontario Courts of Justice Act on a case-by-case basis. Clearly, the courts were slowly adapting the changes in news production and consumption. But the rules were still vague and unclear.

The Williams trial wasn’t about determining guilt or innocence, and the sentence wasn’t up for debate: first-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no possibility for parole for 25 years. No jury was involved, so tweets couldn’t soil the proceedings or taint witness testimony. Plus, the guilty plea meant  photographic and video evidence wouldn’t automatically be entered as court exhibits, so the judge ruled what could be seen and distributed to reporters, and what couldn’t—not to muzzle the  press, but to offer some protection to victims and their loved ones.

While Williams took and catalogued photos of both sexual assaults, prosecutors did not show any on the two TV screens in court, opting to describe them instead. News organizations were given a sampling of photos to publish; but, they were prohibited from identifying the address at which a photo was taken or refer to the indictment count to which it pertained.

Postmedia’s Linda Nguyen, who was a part of the Citizen’s eight-person team in Belleville, tweeted “colour” from the courtroom for the early part of Monday morning and then began taking detailed notes on her laptop. “We’re supposed to be the stewards of information for [the public],” Nguyen said. “The judge understood a journalist’s role and the huge amount of public interest in a case like this.”

For Citizen reporters, this wasn’t just a high-profile national story, but a local one too: Williams spent his weekends with his wife, Mary Elizabeth Harriman, in their Ottawa home. Thirty-two of Williams’ break-and-enter charges were committed in the residential Fallingbrook area. Police found a portion of Williams’s stash in his Westboro home. Williams was arrested in Ottawa.

Why so explicit, though? Yes, Williams’ double life—high-ranking military man by day, sexual predator at night—and Jekyll-and-Hyde persona made for a shocking and compelling narrative. Yes, the investigation had garnered plenty of readers, web clicks, viewers and listeners for news outlets across the country. And yes, the story had made headlines around the world.

But the case for thorough coverage was rooted in more than just those things. People need context and people need to know how monstrous these crimes really were. Williams was unlike other Canadian killer, even notorious serial killer and school friend Paul Bernardo. The publicity put a spotlight on the armed forces and our perception of them. The grim details shook the public and police, and made people realize that no one, even the commander of the country’s most powerful air base, should be above suspicion or above this behaviour.

Even some of Canada’s veteran crime journalists were dismayed. “In thirty years of writing about crime in Canada and conflict abroad, I thought I’d seen every type of killer. But Russell Williams did not resemble any of them, and in one way he seemed the scariest of all, because so many different people who dealt with him had respected him and liked him so much,” the Globe’s Tim Appleby later wrote in his book, “A New Kind Of Monster.”

Now 47, Williams could get parole at age 72. Standing witness and, more notably, chronicling his heinous deeds in precise detail today would likely inhibit any parole board and cement a case against his release 25 years from now. For the reporters in court, it seemed important not only to be sensitive to the victims, and  to inform, but to write an accurate portrayal of history and frame the public record.

Next: Under Pressure

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