NEW WESTMINSTER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A Canadian pig farmer was convicted on Sunday of the serial killings of six women whose bodies were butchered like animals in his farm’s slaughterhouse.
But the jury convicted Robert “Willie” Pickton of a lesser charge of second degree murder, not the first degree murder charge he originally faced. The verdict still carries a sentence of life in prison, but the lesser charge could make it easier to get parole. He will be sentenced on Tuesday.
Pickton stood impassively in the court as the verdict was read. Relatives of the victims initially yelled “No! No!” when the jury said he was not guilty of first degree murder, but then hugged each other in joy outside the court room.
Pickton is accused of killing 26 Vancouver prostitutes, and prosecutors say they are preparing for a second trial to deal with the remaining 20 murder charges.
Pickton, 58, lured the women to his farm in the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam with money and drugs, killed them, and cut up the bodies and disposed of the remains using the pigs and a rendering plant.
Investigators found human remains on the farm, including severed skulls and feet. A woman who lived briefly in Pickton’s trailer testified she saw him cutting up a body in the middle of the night.
Jurors also viewed a taped jailhouse conversation in which Pickton told an undercover officer after his February 2002 arrest that he had killed 49 women and planned to make it 50.
Pickton’s legal defense team argued the human remains did not prove he was the killer and that police ignored other suspects. Pickton did not testify during the trial and rarely showed emotion.
The jury’s failure to convict Pickton of first degree murder meant it did not agree with prosecutors that he planned the murders in advance.
Jurors began their deliberations on November 30 after hearing some 10 months of testimony and legal arguments. Sunday marked the first anniversary of their being picked to hear the case.
The victims were among nearly 70 women who disappeared from the poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside neighborhood of the Pacific Coast city from the late 1980s until late 2001.
Activists complained in the 1990s that sex trade workers were disappearing, but Vancouver police said there was no evidence of a serial killer. A police task force was formed in April 2001 to investigate the cases of the missing women. Pickton was arrested in February 2002.
Investigators spent 20 months digging up Pickton’s farm where he kept a few pigs and salvaged vehicles. The land and collapsing buildings were what remained of a larger family property being sold off for housing development.
The trial painted a dark picture of life at the farm where Pickton — who did not drink or use drugs — befriended a stream of drug addicts, petty thieves and prostitutes.
Relatives and friends of women placed 26 candles in the shape of a heart on the sidewalk outside the court. Many cried as a song was played in honor of the victims.
Rick Frey, whose daughter Marnie disappeared in 1997 and was one of the women Pickton was convicted of killing, said he could not understand why the jury did not convict him on first degree murder given the number of victims.
“But saying that, it is important that we did have six convictions,” said Frey, who eventually wants a public inquiry into whether police in the 1990s ignored evidence a serial killer was at work.
Lead defense attorney Peter Ritchie said it was too early to say if there would be an appeal. “It’s been a long journey,” Ritchie said.
Prosecutors said a final decision on if and when to hold a second trial will be made after review of court rulings in this trial. Whether the defense files an appeal on the six convictions could also affect the decision.
Canadian law does not allow consecutive life sentences so the amount of time Pickton could spend in prison will not increase with any additional convictions. Canada has abolished the death penalty.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham