Robert Pickton book removal creates free speech and ethical dilemma

[Undated image of Robert Pickton on television. / The Canadian Press]

There’s irony in a decision by U.S. variety publisher Outskirts Press and online giant Amazon to stop printing and selling a book purportedly written by notorious Canadian serial killer Robert (Willie) Pickton during Freedom to Read Week.

After storming to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list Monday after news reports about it, the book disappeared from its site in the wake of a sharp public backlash.

Outskirts announced it would no longer produce the $20 book, titled “Pickton In His Own Words.” Despite the title, the nominal author is someone named Michael Chilldres, a friend of one of Pickton’s fellow inmates. The Colorado-based publisher said it was not aware Pickton was the real author, which violated its policy against producing books by convicted criminals.

The flap puts a sharp focus on the question of how to balance freedom of expression, which even the worst criminals theoretically retain, with the desire not to inflict more pain on their victims or allow them to exploit their notoriety for gain.

The answer seems far from clear cut. Victims’ rights groups say the scale should tip in their favour but those in the business of writing and publishing say any restrictions should be as limited as possible.

“Nobody’s going to make Robert Pickton the poster boy for freedom of expression,” said R. Franklin Carter, editor and researcher for the Book and Periodical Council’s freedom of expression committee, which is behind Freedom to Read Week.

But Pickton should not stand in for all convicted criminals who want to write, including those like him who want to advocate for their innocence or simply provide insight into why they committed their crimes.

“These cases always have to be judged case by case,” said Carter.

ALSO READ: Robert Pickton can’t be prevented from profiting from memoir

Pickton is serving concurrent life sentences after being convicted in 2002 of second-degree murder in the deaths of six women. Another 20 counts were stayed and Pickton is thought to have killed as many as 50 women going back two decades.

The victims, many of whom were drug-addicted prostitutes from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, were lured to his suburban pig farm for sex. There he killed and dismembered them, often grinding up their remains.

Pickton used the poverty-stricken neighbourhood as a hunting ground for years before police began taking seriously the disappearances of the women, many of them aboriginal. The botched investigation sparked a public outcry and inquiry.

The thrust of Pickton’s 144-page work essentially is that he’s been framed and DNA evidence that helped seal his conviction was not conclusive.

Pickton’s book poorly written, full of spelling, grammar and syntax errors

Judging from a brief passage included in the Amazon listing before it was taken down, the book would be a tough read. The rambling account of Pickton’s view of the case is riddled with bad grammar, spelling errors and tortured syntax. It clearly received no copy editing, a service Outskirts offers for a fee, perhaps to avoid scrutiny of the work.

It’s not the first time an infamous prisoner has written from behind bars.

Last year, Amazon was forced to remove a e-book novel penned by Paul Bernardo, who was convicted of killing and dismembering two Ontario high school girls along with his then-wife Karla Homolka, after a wave of criticism.

ALSO READ: Paul Bernardo e-book may hurt serial killer’s slim chance at parole

The late B.C. serial killer Clifford Olson, who admitted sexually assaulting and killing 11 young boys and girls, produced several manuscripts describing his crimes in detail. They were revealed after his death.

There was the case of Colin Thatcher, a former Saskatchewan cabinet minister convicted of murdering his wife. He succeeded in writing a book called “Final Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame“ that outlined his claim to innocence. The Saskatchewan government responded by passing legislation requiring that any profits from the book be funneled back to the province.

Saskatchewan is one of five provinces – the others are Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia – to have such a law preventing criminals from profiting from their crimes. Significantly, British Columbia does not, though the government suggested this week it’s coming in the wake of the Pickton book.

They’re largely modeled on the so-called Son of Sam laws in most U.S. states, so named after New York State passed legislation in the late 1970s to prevent killer David Berkowitz, who terrorized New York City with a series of random shootings, from publishing a book about his exploits.

A federal law proposed in the late 1990s passed the House of Commons but was rejected by a senate committee out of concern it violated the Charter.

“We do not object to these laws,” said Carter. “They allow convicted criminals to tell their story, non-fiction or fiction, but they remove the financial or economic incentive to try and profit from crimes.”

Certainly there was money to be made from the Pickton book, which reached No. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list just before it was axed. Buyers were told it would take an atypical three to five weeks for delivery.

R.J. Parker, who writes non-fiction crime books and publishes others’ work, said he wrote to Amazon to complain about Pickton’s book and the online firm’s vetting process.

“Can you even imagine the unnecessary trauma you are inflicting on the families of their victims?” Parker, who also tipped Amazon to the Bernardo book, said in his email to the company.

“This is not the first time you’ve let convicted murderers and rapists publish on your site. I implore you find a way to avoid this in the future and spare all those grieving hearts any further suffering.”

True crime writer says he avoids airing criminals’ views

Amazon did not respond to a request from Yahoo Canada for an explanation on how it handles such books.

Parker told Yahoo Canada he has interviewed both Bernardo and Pickton but had not used the material and would not accept their manuscripts. He and his stable of authors rely on court documents, transcripts and interviews with police, said Parker.

“I don’t support criminals and I ain’t going to publish their books,” he said.

But Parker stopped short of advocating criminals be completely muzzled.

“It’s a really slippery slope,” he said. “I’m an advocate for freedom of speech. If they get no proceeds, I’m fine with it.”

ALSO READ: Robert Pickton sends bizarre reply to reporter who requested an interview

What if Pickton had elected to send out his manuscript for free distribution, say on the web? It likely wouldn’t be covered by Son of Sam-type legislation, said Toronto lawyer Ari Goldkind.

“There’s nothing preventing him from writing his story, however ludicrous his story appears to be,” he told Yahoo Canada.

“The only reason I think he went through the cellmate was he probably thought, correctly or incorrectly, that Corrections Canada would have taken his manuscript and put it through a shredder.”

The Correctional Service of Canada apparently does not explicitly bar a prisoner from writing about his crime and reportedly knew about the Pickton manuscript. According to The Canadian Press, it issued a statement saying federal offenders aren’t allowed to profit from recounting their crimes if it is contrary to the goals of an offender’s correctional plan or poses a threat to someone’s safety, including victims, or to the security of a federal institution.

An author who gains access to someone like Pickton and publishes a work based on that material would also be in the clear as long as the criminal did not profit from the exchange, said Goldkind.

The Association of Canadian Publishers, which speaks for mainstream publishers, also believes government should not play a role in what can be published or read. There are obviously legal limitations, such as libel, slander and certain kinds of pornography.

“Freedom of expression is certainly an enshrined right in the Charter,” said association executive director Kate Edwards. “But this is a question writers and publishers, teachers and librarians and citizens grapple with.”

Publishers each set their own standards, association head says

The association does not have a policy or offer its members guidance on these questions, she said.

“I think each firm would look at it differently,” said Edwards. “They each have their own editorial mandates and they make those decisions independently within the context of Canadian law.”

In a 2010 article on the Thatcher book for a Freedom to Read publication, lawyer Marian Hebb argued prohibiting criminals from writing risks silencing legitimate voices who can give us insights into their lives.

“It is a motherhood statement to say that criminals should not profit from their crimes, but writing about a crime is not the same thing,” she said.

“In the past, writing their own stories has assisted persons who have been wrongfully convicted to exonerate themselves. It has also assisted those who have committed crimes to rehabilitate themselves and re-establish a relationship with society.”

No doubt many people devour true-crime stories for their sensational elements, as Parker said he believes. Whether it’s TV, film or the printed page, people get a vicarious thrill out of them.

But Carter said that doesn’t invalidate a convicted criminal’s potential contribution to our understanding of the criminal mind.

“Our view is that people who don’t want to read the book are not obliged to read it,” he said. “They’re not obliged to have it in their homes, they don’t have to think about it. They don’t have the authority to dictate to other people what they may read and what they think.”

No one from Victims of Violence, one of Canada’s most prominent victims’ rights groups, was available to comment on the Pickton book.