One news story singularly captured the attention of Canadians this summer: the case of the fugitives from Port Alberni alleged to have committed at least one murder in British Columbia’s interior. Recently, the bodies of the two missing young men were found in northern Manitoba, near a damaged boat and some of their belongings.
And so it would appear that the manhunt is over.
The public now has questions that are left unanswered. What evidence did the police have connecting these two young men to the killing? What was the motive for the alleged killing? Were the two men responsible for the deaths of the other couple found shot around the same time? And what did they do while on the run? These questions will now go unanswered.
This has many people upset. And their frustration is understandable. Such a big news story that dominated headlines and captured our attentions does not have a satisfactory ending. This feeling of dissatisfaction has left people criticizing police for not providing the answers.
But the reality is that we are not entitled to those answers. And here’s why.
When police investigate a crime, they have competing duties. Their first duty is to fairly investigate the evidence, and to avoid releasing too much information to the public. There is good reason for this. Serious charges, like child pornography and sexual assault have recently been stayed by the courts as a result of police releasing too much information. The release of too much information can compromise trial fairness, can encourage false reporting of similar incidents, and can taint jury pools.
And so police have to tread lightly when providing the public with information in the course of an ongoing investigation.
This duty, however, must be balanced against the obligation police have to warn the public of danger. Police have historically come under fire for failing in their duty to warn on that stretch of highway with the high rates of disappearances of Indigenous women and girls. Similarly, whether the duty to warn was breached during the Robert Pickton murders is also a serious question. If police believe there is a legitimate threat to the public, they are obligated to warn the public.
And that is what happened in this case. They believed, based on some evidence gathered in the investigation, that these two young men posed a legitimate public safety risk. They had an obligation to warn the public. But their obligation did not go beyond that. They did and do not have an obligation to provide answers to questions by the public.
There are also practical reasons why the police may not choose to ever release the information they learned in the investigation.
For example, if the police were acting on information given to them by witnesses or anonymous tipsters, the decision to release that may compromise the safety of those individuals. Not only are there legitimate concerns about retaliation while the alleged killers are still at large, but due to the large amount of media attention this case attracted, the identity of any witnesses must be carefully guarded.
After all, reporters have jobs to do and if they could identify a potential witness, a reporter would be remiss not to seek an interview. Because of the small and close-knit nature of the communities where the murders occurred, where the burned-out vehicles were found, and where the manhunt took place, the identification of a witness could potentially be easily determined based on only limited information. This could be disruptive to that person’s life and sense of comfort. Police have an obligation to protect that.
And while the belief is that these young men committed the murders, that has not been proven. Police have to be alive to the possibility of new technology, new forensic science methods, or new information coming to light that shifts their focus elsewhere. Though it is highly doubtful there is any active investigation into alternate killers at this point, the door is not closed on that. Police need to keep some information private to use as leverage in carrying out those investigations if and when they arise.
Finally, the police engage in evidence-gathering and investigatory tactics in murder and other serious crime cases that are often not released to the public for fear that they may compromise further investigations. As the theory goes, these young men burned out vehicles. This is known as a forensic countermeasure, designed to eliminate evidence that may otherwise connect them to the vehicles or the crimes. The less information murder suspects writ large have about forensic and investigatory techniques used, the less likely this important evidence may be deliberately compromised.
The police have to protect the ability to conduct future investigations.
And so while it may be frustrating to not get answers in this fascinating story, there are good reasons for it. The public does not deserve, nor is it entitled to answers. The public deserves and is entitled to an investigation conducted properly by police that are doing their best to follow the law. By all accounts, that is what is happening here and we should applaud it.
Kyla Lee is a criminal lawyer based in Vancouver.