The chaotic Hopkins sexual assault trial stretches on — and the court can do little about it

·4 min read
Stephen Hopkins continues to represent himself in his sexual assault trial, and despite the delays and upheaval, there's not much the court can do about it. (Malone Mullin/CBC - image credit)
Stephen Hopkins continues to represent himself in his sexual assault trial, and despite the delays and upheaval, there's not much the court can do about it. (Malone Mullin/CBC - image credit)
Malone Mullin/CBC
Malone Mullin/CBC

WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.

As a prolonged sexual assault trial in St. John's enters its second month, the accused continues to delay proceedings and draw lectures from the bench — raising the question of whether the court can step in and force the defendant to obtain a lawyer.

Stephen Hopkins allegedly broke into a Cowan Heights home in September 2020. The 17-year-old complainant, who can't be identified, has testified Hopkins asked her for a glass of water, and when she opened the door to hand it to him, he pushed his way inside, carried her upstairs and allegedly sexually assaulted her.

Hopkins is representing himself in Supreme Court, and since the beginning of his trial on May 2 has spent considerable time with witnesses. Hopkins kept one witness, an RNC sergeant, on the stand for nearly two days during cross-examination.

Much of that was spent arguing with Justice Donald Burrage over what questions he was allowed to ask, or in elaborate preambles that often didn't lead to a question at all.

The strategy has prompted Burrage to repeatedly reprimand Hopkins.

Last week, as he prepared for his defence, Hopkins rattled off a list of his intended witnesses, many of them RNC officers.

"There will be a test of relevance," Burrage told him. "I'm not going to sit here while you subpoena half the city."

"Do my rights have any weight in your mind?" Hopkins asked.

"You do not have the right to run roughshod over the process," Burrage replied.

"I have been lax in enforcing [the rules].… You certainly have the right of self-representation, which you've chosen. Beyond that, you don't have the right to run amok over the Criminal Code."

Hopkins's move unusual, law prof says

Burrage was right when he said Hopkins had every right to decline a lawyer and tackle the trial himself, says Jennifer Leitch, a law professor and executive director of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project, an organization that advocates for better resources for people who defend themselves in court.

"We don't see a lot of people choosing to represent themselves," Leitch said, adding that most unrepresented defendants are those who can't afford a lawyer or can't access legal aid.

"Although there is a group who say, 'I want to take control of my own case' … and that's fine. That's their choice."

CBC
CBC

But that decision has its drawbacks, both for the court and the defendant, she said.

"We have an adversarial system that is designed by lawyers, for lawyers to participate in," Leitch said.

"What we have now is a real disparity.… One party has gone to law school, gained experience most likely in trial settings and hearing settings, has a knowledge of the substantive procedural law and is prepared to proceed.

"And the other party, the unrepresented or self-represented party, is often running to catch up."

That became clear last week, when Hopkins called several police officers to the stand, alongside a former roommate, who appeared less than charmed by the accused.

"I never had a relationship with you," the former roommate testified.

"I always told you never to talk to the girls that came over to see me. I didn't like that when you did. I complained to the landlord about you several times.… I didn't like you and I told you that."

"You complained about me?" Hopkins asked in disbelief.

"I did. Several times," the witness answered.

Burrage stopped Hopkins several times to warn him away from that line of questioning.

"Were a jury sitting there hearing this gentleman … describe you as a 'rapehound,' that would be highly prejudicial to a jury," the justice said.

"What you're extracting from this witness is not at all helpful to your cause."

Right to self-representation 'fundamental'

Despite the upheaval, Leitch said, Hopkins can continue to represent himself. A court can step in to appoint a lawyer only if the defendant were considered legally incapacitated.

"It's pretty fundamental to think about participation and to think about the right to speak in your own voice, particularly when it's your life on the line," Leitch said.

"If someone were deemed to be incompetent from a legal standpoint, then you would think about appointing counsel. But other than that, we allow people to represent themselves."

Malone Mullin/CBC
Malone Mullin/CBC

In civil and family court, most litigants don't have lawyers, Leitch says. The proportion isn't much lower for relatively minor criminal charges; for instance, about 30 per cent of impaired driving defendants are unrepresented, she says.

Defendants without lawyers, she adds, are statistically more likely to lose their case.

"It's a really intimidating process for most people.… The rules of evidence, the rules of procedure, who talks when," she said.

"We need to be thinking about the ways in which we might reconfigure some of these court processes to make them work better for the vast majority of self-represented people that are actually appearing in them."

Hopkins's trial continues Monday.

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.

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