Fortney: Nathan O’Brien’s mother a portrait of courage on witness stand


It is the all-too-rare human quality that sends soldiers off to fight for their country, activists to stand in peaceful defiance before a wall of gun-toting riot officers. When it appears in a quieter form, its impact can still be so powerful as to take one’s breath away.

Such is the effect Jennifer O’Brien has on a packed courtroom on Monday morning. On the opening day of a five-week jury trial in which Douglas Garland is charged with the first-degree murder of three people, O’Brien is the first of approximately 50 witnesses to be called.

She is a familiar face to millions, both in Canada and around the world. On a hot July day in 2014, she was the tearful young mother standing at a podium at a police press conference to ask for the return of her family — and telling her five-year-old son Nathan to be strong.

On this day, she is the mother of a murder victim, the daughter orphaned after her parents, Alvin and Kathy Liknes, and her son Nathan met what could only have been a terrifying and violent death.

She’s had time to become familiar with the Crown’s case, in which Garland has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder: a horrific crime, Crown prosecutor Vicki Faulkner tells the court, that stemmed from a petty grudge that grew into a methodical, meticulous plan to kill.

O’Brien, the last person to see her happy family alive, recalls a day that included Mexican food for lunch, her little boy charming people at his grandma’s estate sale, capped with an evening of cuddling with her two kids and mother on a couch as they watched a movie together.

While anyone would forgive her if she broke into uncontrollable sobs, O’Brien’s voice cracks only once or twice as she talks about things like her blond boy’s love of his Superman cape, his excitement to take his grandpa to a nearby playground so he could show him his new skills on the monkey bars.

Her composure hardly sways when she recalls returning to her parents’ home the next day. The happy home of a few hours earlier was now a house of horrors, with pools of blood in just about every room and bloody fingerprints on walls. She called her husband Rod, saying, “My family’s been murdered and he’s taken the bodies,” and then called 911.

After a break for lunch, O’Brien is back on the stand. Going through photo exhibits of her parents’ home — adopted by her stepfather, she refers to him as dad — the daylong pressure is starting to show. “That’s where we spent a lot of time as families,” she says, laughing tearfully as she examines a photograph of her mom’s yellow-painted kitchen.

O’Brien knows which side of the bed each parent slept on, and wipes a tear when looking at a photograph of a room that shows Nathan’s Superman cape.

When defence lawyer Jim Lutz begins his cross-examination of the grieving mother and daughter, he speaks softly and asks just a few questions. He asks her about the comment that someone had taken her family’s bodies, noting it was the first he had heard of it. He also asks her about two people from the estate sale she was concerned about, which she confirms.

In the blink of an eye, though, the cross-examination is over. Jennifer O’Brien, her testimony thankfully done, walks over to the courtroom gallery and sits in the front row with her relatives.

Later in the day, media are shown the photograph of her family that made O’Brien smile and cry. Her mom Kathy is sitting in a big chair, her two little grandsons, both smiling, wrapped in her arms.

It was almost 1,000 days ago the photo was taken. Jennifer O’Brien likely knows how many days, hours and minutes.