Although Alberta’s superior court is lifting its vaccine requirement for prospective jurors this week, one of the people charged in the Coutts border blockade says she still fears “bias” because judges still have the discretion to require a fully vaccinated jury.
Joanne Person, 62, is charged with dangerous operation of a motor vehicle, possession of a weapon and mischief over $5,000.
She appeared in Lethbridge court Monday and told the judge she chooses to be tried by “judge and jury of my peers.”
Person, who is representing herself, then raised the concern around the makeup of her jury.
“This protest that took place was against the mandates of vaccinations,” she told provincial court Judge Sylvia Oishi. “Insisting on a vaccinated jury would bias my case.”
Judges will still have discretion
On Monday, the court’s executive legal counsel Darryl Ruether told CBC News an announcement about changes to the jury selection process is imminent.
Starting Thursday, the court is lifting the requirement for potential jurors who are currently required to produce their QR codes and ID during the selection process.
Judges, though, will still have the discretion to require a jury composed only of vaccinated people for safety reasons, said Ruether.
Jury composition is very important to trial fairness, says defence lawyer Gavin Wolch, who ran a jury trial during the pandemic.
‘We presume jurors can act impartially’
Wolch says he can appreciate Person’s concern and says it’s a unique situation where “public health concerns are pitted against the perception of having a truly impartial jury.”
“The other side of the coin is that we presume jurors can act impartially,” Wolch said.
“We presume that jurors can follow instructions and that a judge would instruct a jury in that situation to put aside personal beliefs and approach an accused person with an open mind.”
An option to address Person’s concern could be to make an application to question potential jurors during the selection process to confirm they don’t hold beliefs that could bias their deliberations.
Person and 13 others were charged following an RCMP raid of trailers on Feb. 14, when officers seized guns, body armour, a large quantity of ammunition and high-capacity firearm magazines.
The on-again, off-again blockade of the busy border crossing by people opposed to COVID-19 health restrictions lasted more than two weeks but ended the day after the arrests.
Accosted ‘in public and at home’
Person told Oishi she has “faced accosting in public and at home” because of media coverage of the case and arrests.
Several media outlets have joined together to apply for access to ITOs (information to obtain), which are applications prepared by police in order to secure search warrants.
They contain preliminary evidence and information gathered by police used to justify search warrants.
Person indicated she would oppose the release of the ITOs connected to the searches conducted at her home and nearby trailers.
“I would like the media ban to continue,” she said.
The media’s application is set to be heard next month.
Accused of breaching RCMP blockade
Person is accused of breaching an RCMP blockade on Feb. 1 in Milk River, Alta., driving the wrong way down the highway before crashing head-on with another vehicle.
Her other charges relate to alleged activity at the border blockade.
Most of the 14 accused face charges of mischief to property over $5,000 and possession of a weapon.
Four also face an additional charge of conspiracy to murder for an alleged plot to kill RCMP officers.
All of the men charged with conspiracy to murder — Chris Carbert, Christopher Lysak, Anthony Olienick and Jerry Morin — remain in custody.
They will be tried together but a date for trial has not yet been set.
Carbert and Lysak both have ties to a group with white supremacist beliefs.