The Homolka case of 1993 saw a controversial ban in Canada on publication of the details of a murder trial.
Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, commonly known as ‘Killer Barbie and Ken’, are a Canadian couple who engaged in a series of videotaped sex murders. Karla Homolka, with her partner Paul Bernardo, was convicted of the abduction, rape and murder of two teenage girls, and of the drugging and rape of her younger sister, in St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada, in 1993. The couple first drugged Karla’s sister, Tammy, with an anaesthetic and sleeping pills, and raped her while she slept on 23 December 1990.
Tammy then accidentally died due to the drugs. In January 1991 Paul Bernardo brought a hitchhiker back to the house he shared with the Homolka family and sexually assaulted her. Only Karla was aware of his activities.Karla and Paul then moved into their own house, and on 7 June 1991 they both drugged and sexually assaulted a young friend of the late Tammy Homolka.
In the early hours of 15 June 1991 Paul kidnapped 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy. He and Karla sexually assaulted the teenager until Paul strangled her in the morning of 16 June 1991. Leslie’s body was then dismembered, encased in concrete and dumped into a lake. Karla and Paul were married shortly after, on 29 June 1991.
Leslie’s body parts were discovered on 30 June 1991. In late July 1991 the couple drugged and assaulted the same young friend of Tammy’s for the second time. On 16 April 1992 Karla and Paul kidnapped 15-year-old Kristen French and kept her as a ‘sex slave’ in their house until 19 April 1992, when Paul strangled her. Kristen’s body was dumped in bushland and was not discovered until 30 April 1992.
Most of the sexual assaults on all the girls were videotaped.Karla eventually left Paul on 5 January 1993, after a particularly savage beating at his hands. She negotiated an agreement with the police in exchange for her testimony, as at this time the videotapes of the assaults were missing. At her trial Karla pled guilty to all charges and, on 6 July 1993, was sentenced to two concurrent maximum sentences of twelve years for the manslaughter of Leslie and Kristen.
She divorced Paul on 25 February 1994. The videotapes were finally handed to the police by one of Bernardo’s lawyers in February 1995. Paul’s trial commenced on 1 May 1995. He was convicted of both murders and rapes, and, on 1 September 1995, was given a life sentence with no parole for twenty-five years.
He subsequently filed an unsuccessful appeal on 8 September 1995.Procedural failings in the police investigation and the concealment of vital evidence by the defence meant that Homolka was offered and accepted a plea bargain, in which she testified against her ex-husband. This ‘deal with the devil’, as it became popularly known, won her immunity from prosecution on a murder charge. She was tried for manslaughter, with prosecutors at her trial portraying Homolka as a beaten wife, and reluctant accomplice of a sadist.
Following Homolka’s subsequent conviction and the imposition of a twelve-year sentence, videotapes showing the crimes which had been concealed by Bernardo’s lawyer were turned over to the authorities. The Ontario Court of Justice imposed a strict ban on publication of the Homolka case details until the trial of her ex-husband had taken place (R v. Bernardo, 1993). The media parties to the case cited the freedom of the media under s.
2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They called for open justice, and stated that transparency was especially important in this case because of the plea bargain struck by Homolka. The judge allowed the ban solely on the basis that a fair trial for Paul Bernardo necessitated the measure, to allow an impartial jury to be found. However, the ban was subverted by transborder flows of information and gossip, through which the details of the crime were ‘ferociously available’ (Shade 1996, p.
20). A newsgroup on Usenet, a worldwide bulletin-board system, was set up to enable discussion of the case and the ban. This produced a collage of rumours and speculations, which slowly formed a picture of the crimes, a narrative circulated by email as a lurid FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) list. An anonymous remailer in Finland (a service which receives email and resends it after removing all traces of the original source) was used extensively, being out of Canadian jurisdiction.
Despite universities preventing access to the newsgroup, and police seizing newspapers and intercepting television signals, there were many ways for people to gain access to the prohibited information. Toronto residents with television antennas could pick up the broadcasts about the trial from Buffalo, and Canadians streamed across the border to purchase and read the coverage in US newspapers.An issue of Wired magazine supplying information on how Canadians could find the illicit information was banned in Canada. In protest, the magazine’s president called up the phrase ‘information wants to be free’, quoting Stewart Brand, a key counterculture figure, and co-founder of the virtual community described in Rheingold’s book.
Freedom of expression campaigners celebrated the cyberspatial subversion of the ban as a triumph for libertarian activism. Analyses like the following were typical:“In cyberspace, nobody knows you are a dog,’ says one canine to another in a popular cartoon exemplifying the indirect nature of electronic contact. … Nobody has any reason to believe what you say you are, and nobody has any way of holding you responsible for your actions without your cooperation.… Boundaries erected by nations or companies may work to hinder the free flow of material, but to the free flow of information these boundaries are artificial.
… A typical case that got a lot of media coverage s to do with the Teale-Homolka trial.… The government was helpless at this demonstration of information wanting to be free…” (Ghosh, 1994).This kind of response to the ban typically avoids discussing the actual specificities of the communications made, and instead cyber-libertarian phrases are repeated as magic mantras with a self-evident, unassailable logic. A singular democratic internet culture is evoked, ‘the internet spirit’, instead of any analysis of the kinds of communications around the Homolka case and their various likely effects.
Illicit online communications about Homolka’s crime merged together gory details, punitive expressions, and salacious titillation about the ‘homicide blonde’, or ‘killer babe’. A 300,000 signature petition was presented to the Senate of Canada in 1995 demanding a public inquiry into the Homolka investigation and plea bargain, as well as insisting that all Homolka’s privileges in prison be revoked and that she serve the full twelve-year sentence (Karla Homolka Plea Bargain Agreement, 1995). The Attorney-General ordered an inquiry, the report of which addressed in great detail the juridical transformation of Homolka from depraved sex killer to battered woman beaten into murder (Gilligan, 1996). A range of violent and vengeful websites were set up, as well as campaigning sites protesting the plea bargain.
These debated Homolka’s motivations and demanded more severe punishment. For instance, one webpage announced, ‘Folks, we have a histrionic, psychopath hybristophile. Karla is “NOT” the pseudo-psycho-compliant-battered-post-traumatically-stressed-and-otherwise-nice-girl-victim that the Bernardo prosecution portrayed.’ The most reported upon threat site was the ‘Karla Homolka Death Pool’, its ominous subititle ‘When the Game is Over, We all Win.
‘ Another, ‘Karla Homolka Sucks’, featured a photograph of Homolka, which bled if you ‘bashed’ it by mouse-clicking. Homolka’s lawyer told the press of his growing fears for her safety because of the internet death pools, stating that she would be an easy target for someone wanting to shoot her through the wire fence surrounding her prison. By law, all Canadian federal prisoners must be released after serving two-thirds of their sentence unless officials can prove that they are likely to kill or cause serious harm. Homolka’s parole hearing took place amid hostility and scandal, after photographs of her attired in evening dress at a birthday party in prison were published in the press.
Calls were made for the ‘liberal’ federal government to repeal the law on automatic early release. After the authorities ordered a psychiatric assessment, Homolka was refused parole on the grounds that she posed too great a risk of violent reoffending, and that she refused to recognize her own sadistic role in the killings. Her lawyer’s protest that the authorities were capitulating to media-fuelled public vengefulness emphasized a complex interplay of vengeful communications and cyber-libertarian activism.While mainstream discourses’ portrayals of Karla Homolka veered between her condemnation as monster and depiction as masochistic victims under the control of their evil partners, feminist cultural studies and legal theorists were notably silent.
This silence, although hardly unusual, was nevertheless seemingly at odds with the primary aims of feminist legal theory and analyses of cultural constructions of Woman and female gender performance. In the case of violent women, feminist legal theorists, in particular, have concentrated on breaking down the deleterious effects of the double jeopardy they face, principally through emphasizing contextual factors which may have influenced their actions and diminishing the importance of the conventional stereotypical ways in which women are usually represented. Often it is through subversion of traditional feminine roles and stereotypes that feminist theorists and advocates aim to promote understanding of individual women’s case histories, and hence to lessen discrimination against women in general. However, in so doing, it seems a dichotomizing of cases acceptable to feminist intervention has occurred.
Women whose activities betray a more feminist or autonomous perspective find themselves the subjects of further feminist legal analysis, as do those who have engaged in violent acts perceived as the consequence of previous abuse. So the selection of violent women acceptable to and therefore discussed within feminist legal theory thus depends upon the offender’s personal politics and the type of violence committed. These dual images of women correspond to two different varieties of contemporary feminism. In Jane Gallop’s terms, these are ‘victim feminism’ and ‘power feminism’.
Victim feminism has grown out of the politics and activism of second wave feminists and tends to emphasize the restrictions operating in women’s lives under heteropatriarchy. Power feminism, on the other hand, is often promoted by third wave feminists, or postfeminists, and ‘explores women’s potential’, proposing that ‘what women need is to recognize, enjoy and enhance our power’ (Gallop, 1997, p.71).The lack of response to women like Homolka who don’t inspire sympathy as victims, or celebration as powerful avengers, is profound.
Female murderers who commit violence against children or young women are subject to a ‘deafening silence’ (Birch, 1993:34) from most feminist critics unless their crimes be named infanticide (Pearson, 1998, Fitzroy, 1997).The omission of sexually violent women tells much, then, about the construction of the violent woman within feminist theory, particularly within feminist legal theory (Matravers, 2001). Homolka and others like her are not included in many feminist discussions of violent women because they cannot be made to fit feminist constructions of the violent female subject. Women who engage in violent crimes against other younger women, therefore, form the ‘limit’ cases of feminist theory on female violence.
For they not only dismantle commonsensical notions of heterosexual romantic love, but also shatter irrevocably the stereotypes of femininity, exposing the bounds within which constructions of the feminine are erected. Mainstream law and media responded to the challenge that the cases of Karla Homolka and her husband represented with their usual strategy of denying the women’s humanity and agency. On the one hand, they relied on vilificatory portrayals excluding Homolka from ‘decent’ humanity and, on the other, they invoked masochistic victim narratives which denied female accountability.The politics of Karla Homolka’s specularity was a constant theme.
The question as to whether Karla actually witnessed events was, of course, vital to the case, but the implications of her having done so quickly became almost more important. For the look held the promise of her possible agency in, and therefore accountability for, the crimes, something she became increasingly desperate to avoid. She claimed, for instance, that she stood in a doorway and watched while Paul killed Leslie and Kristen. She claimed that she also watched him assault them and the other victims.
She claimed she helped him videotape the assaults, but disagreed with Paul that they watched those tapes over and over again. Rather than admitting his assertion that the tapes were an essential part of their sexual fantasy life (Duncanson, et al., 1995), she insisted that she got no joy out of watching their repetition (Paul Kenneth Bernardo v Queen, 1995). Indeed, she stated that she had not even seen some of the tapes in police possession.
Karla’s troublesome gaze was quickly neutralized through her assertion that although she had clearly seen numerous horrific assaults on young girls, performed both by herself and by her ex-husband, she had developed a knack of looking but not seeing. Swaddled in this convenient ‘defence mechanism’, she was then able to sit impassively through courtroom re-screenings of her rape of Tammy (Pearson, 1998, p. 193) and through a video of the rape of a young friend of Tammy’s, known only as Jane Doe, in which she ‘smiles for the camera and sticks her tongue out saucily … [even] employ[ing] one of the hands of the unconscious victim … to stimulate herself sexually’ (Makin, 1995). As she observed to Ray Houlahan: ‘”I look at [such videos] and my eyes just stop seeing.
It’s not something I can control”‘ (Makin, 1995). Her need to vindicate her role thus clearly encompasses any and every involvement she had in the rapes and murders, including even her capacity to witness acts clearly recorded on tape.Karla Homolka’s enjoyment of her activities with Paul Bernardo was nevertheless evident in hour after hour of those home-made tapes. Apart from the very first such video, made of the rape and sodomy of her sister Tammy, Karla never once flags in her depicted enthusiasm for the sexual assault of helpless young girls.
In tape after tape of assaults on Jane Doe, Leslie and Kristen, Karla can be seen laughing lasciviously, waving gaily at the camera, licking her lips, actively engaging in her own rapes of the girls and aiding Paul’s commission of anal and vaginal rapes. She even held a videotaped discussion with Paul on one notorious tape, later titled the ‘fireside chat’ video, made just three weeks after Tammy’s death, in which she stated she would help him kidnap virgins as young as 13 for them to rape; and that she enjoyed both her own and his rape of Tammy (Pron and Duncanson, 1995; Cairns and Burnside, 1995). Her willing participation in the assaults is, thus, abundantly clear, despite the claims of the prosecution that Paul battered her into submission.Karla Homolka was not convicted of the sexual abuse of any of her victims due to the absence of the incriminating video tapes at her trial.
Her extraordinarily light sentence reflected only her involvement in the two murders. At Paul’s trial the prosecutor, Ray Houlahan, stated that had the tapes come to light earlier, Karla would have been tried for first degree murder along with her husband (Paul Kenneth Bernardo v Queen, 1995).These statements and tapes would seem to provide evidence, then, that Homolka went beyond the voyeurism of the final stage of the beating fantasy and became sadist herself. For her activities with the victims evidently demonstrate sexual pleasure that is ‘conditional on the humiliation and maltreatment of the [sexual] object’, which describes sadistic perversion (Bonaparte, 1995, p.
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