Mon, Dec 11, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Suspected killer of 26 women pleads not guilty in Canada

AGENCIES , NEW WESTMINSTER, CANADA

A pig farmer alleged to be Canada's worst serial killer pleaded not guilty on Saturday to charges of murdering women from the seediest neighborhoods of Vancouver.

The farmer and junk dealer who went by the name "Willie" Pickton initially will be tried on only six of 26 murder charges.

The court has divided the charges into two trials in an effort to make it easier to get a jury.

More than 500 potential jurors filed through a court in New Westminster, with some saying they were worried about the expected length of the trial.

Lawyers have said it could last more than a year.

"It's a civic duty, but obviously it is going to be a hardship for anyone who has got to do it," said one woman as she prepared to join the line of people entering the court.

Pickton, accused of being Canada's worst serial killer, had to re-enter his plea on the first six murder counts because of the decision to have two trials.

"Not guilty, your honor," he said in a soft but firm voice to each count.

His back was to the audience as he sat in the prisoner's box, and he never turned around to see the prospective jurors as they were brought before the judge in groups of 30 for initial instructions.

The 26 victims were among nearly 70 drug addicts and sex trade workers who disappeared from Vancouver's poor Downtown Eastside neighborhood from the late 1980s to shortly before Pickton's arrest in February 2002.

Health authorities later on issued a tainted-meat advisory to Pickton's neighbors, who may have bought pork from his farm, concerned that the meat contained human remains.

The investigation into the disappearance of the women drew wide publicity even before Pickton was accused.

Some prospective jurors who answered questions from reporters admitted that they were of course also familiar with the case.

"Everybody knows about it," one man said.

Due to the case's notoriety, the prosecution and defense will question prospective jurors more thoroughly than usual to determine potential biases.

Both sides said Saturday's hearing went smoothly and predicted they would be able to select a jury of 12 people.

Arguments in the trial are set to begin on Jan. 8.

Police searched Pickton's ramshackle farm and junkyard in the Port Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver, for nearly two years following his arrest. They used earthmoving equipment and search teams trained in forensic archeology.

Investigators say they found the DNA of at least 31 of the missing women -- although not all could be used as evidence to support murder charges.

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