Fortney: Crowded jury selection for triple-murder case follows American style

“Well, this is a different kind of day. The only thing familiar was the train ride downtown.”

At just after 11 a.m. Wednesday, the man speaking aloud to no one in particular is well aware he’s far from alone, judging by the bewildered expressions of many others standing with him outside a Calgary courtroom.

Like the others, he’s been called here for jury duty, an experience many of us will have at least once in our adult lives.

Still, very few will witness a day like the one rolling out here, as 472 prospective jurors arrive first thing in the morning for a long and detailed selection process in the triple-murder trial against Douglas Garland, set to begin Monday.

The reason for the astonishing numbers, from all walks of life, is due to the overwhelming pre-trial publicity around the case. The June 30, 2014, disappearance of five-year-old Nathan O’Brien and his grandparents, Kathy and Alvin Liknes, triggered the longest Amber Alert in Canadian history.

Images of the adorable preschooler were flashed on billboards across the province, his smiling face on television and news websites. By the time Calgary police laid the charges against Garland two weeks later, the heartbreaking story was known around the world.

Because of this, defence lawyers Jim Lutz and Kim Ross asked for a “challenge for cause,” an American-style process where questions, crafted by the defence and read by the judge, are posed to potential jurors to help determine whether they may have a bias — questions such as how much about the case they have read about in the media and whether they believe it will hamper their ability to judge the case on the presented evidence alone.

Though I’ve only covered courts for a decade, I can call it a most extraordinary day in the city’s courthouse, thanks to the help of those more experienced — I ask one long-term court insider how often he’s seen such a spectacle of hundreds gathered for jury duty, he responds: “Never.”

By just after 9 a.m., a courtroom about the size of a gymnasium — it’s a ceremonial one, usually reserved for happier occasions such as citizenship ceremonies — is filled. Commissionaires, their usually quiet jobs transformed into massive human wrangling, kindly direct the latecomers to two other courtrooms.

After Justice Robert Hall reminds them that jury duty plays a vital role in a democracy that abides by the rule of law, those summoned spend the day waiting.

Some keep busy playing Sudoku games. Others read paperback novels and some sneak peeks at their smartphones, despite warnings that getting caught with a ringing phone in court will provoke a severe reprimand. Many appear agitated when told they can only leave for designated bathroom and lunch breaks, while a crowd of about 100 in one courtroom lets out a collective gasp when informed they could be here until well past the dinner hour.

While the occasional “this is crazy” comment is heard throughout a day of long waits and periodic moves from one courtroom to another, though, most seem well aware of the high stakes involved.

This is, after all, a criminal case revolving around the devastating loss of three lives from one family, a tragedy that tore apart extended families and shook a nation.

Those who make it to the smaller courtroom, to be directly asked questions by the judge, couldn’t forget if they wanted to — sitting in the prisoner’s box in blue coveralls, Douglas Garland, 56, keeps a studious eye on the proceedings throughout the day, which before 5 p.m. will have chosen 14 jurors, 11 males and three females, along with two female alternates.

For people like Angela McDiarmid, the tragedy that made this day possible has been front and centre for many gathered. “Everyone has heard about what happened,” she said, after she is disqualified for jury duty due to a challenge from the defence.

Still, she says she would have approached the job with an open mind.

“It’s important and I would have been willing to do it,” she says, echoing the sentiments of many others. “Regardless, today has been an interesting experience — definitely different.”