With the initial investigation into Holly Jones’ murder over and a trial yet to come, I’d like to focus on a peripheral element in these grim cases that keeps growing more prominent. Lawyer Tim Danson, who acted for victims’ families in the trial of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, has been hired by the Jones family to “protect their interests.”

In the past, those interests were often poorly served and everyone seems to agree a change was due. But it’s possible the shift has gone too far, or in the wrong direction.

Such lawyers — which often means Tim Danson — rarely get standing in a case, but now are almost always “heard” by the judge and can play key roles.

In the trial of former Bernardo lawyer Ken Murray, as reported by Christie Blatchford, virtually all players — judge, Crown, even the defence — deferred to Mr. Danson’s concerns and consulted with him, to the point of hampering the defence.

His style tends to be histrionic and insistent, and he ranges far afield: In March, he challenged the legality of photos in a book on the Homolka case. Halifax lawyer Ross Haynes calls these people “victimicons” and fears their role is distorting the legal system, since our system is set up to make society responsible for dealing with crime rather than leaving it to wronged individuals.

Even if you fully grant the legitimacy of these victims’ demands, would you really like to see them built into our justice system? I’d like to add one further problem. It concerns the families themselves.

To cast someone as a victim may not serve that person’s own best interests. It is the murdered kids who are the actual victims, though the distinction can get blurry. Tim Danson’s clients are the families of those killed; their victimhood is of a different order since they have lives, however blighted, that continue.

It is possible to honour someone’s memory perpetually without, as it were, usurping some of the permanent victim status for oneself — and, I think, most people would agree that is the best route to take. Think of Fred Goldman of the O.J. Simpson case, whose son, Ron, was murdered, and who seemed trapped by the intensity, glamour and media attention of his victim role; he even tried out as a radio host. On a lesser level, a pro athlete, like former Toronto Maple Leaf Alyn McCauley, who had a series of head injuries, was pressed by well-meaning victims’ groups to define himself largely in terms of his injuries, though he declined.

It seems to me a lawyer like Tim Danson may not be helping his clients in this regard.

“The process,” he told The Globe‘s Margaret Wente last month, “can last years . . . There’s a point where things get worse before they get better,” especially when “it starts sinking in that your loved one really isn’t there.”

He sounds like he’s in it for a very long haul and, although a lawyer can also be a friend, playing a long-term therapeutic role in addition to a legal one might be better left to others.

Mr. Danson also strikes a note of identification as a victim himself.

Maclean‘s quotes him: “For reasons I can’t explain, there is a personal bond between myself and Kristen [French] and Leslie [Mahaffy]. I will defend them like I would my own children.”

I find this presumptuous but surely sincere. What I don’t understand is stating it publicly since, unlike his clients, he still has his own kids, and a career, which was uninterrupted. In this sense, identifying as a victim will come easier to him than to them.

There is also a financial question. These cases are expensive, especially when they last years. They have been funded, so far, mainly by funds raised in the victims’ communities or by governments.

I’m not suggesting lawyers doing this work have financial motives but, in an area where altruism is so passionately proclaimed, even a slight appearance of ambulance-chasing should be avoided. So it would be best to shorten the duration rather than extend it, and avoid any sense of a vested interest in perpetuating victim status — especially since that would also be in the best interest of the clients’ welfare.

Finally, there’s the matter of victimhood in the culture and politics of our era. It has become a key element of identity and a major motivator of action, not just for individuals but for groups and nations. One lesson of our time, I’d say, is that a sense of victimhood does not inherently ennoble, and is frequently a poor basis for action or policy.

This applies not just to traditional victims, the “wretched of the Earth,” but even to the mightiest society of all, the United States, plagued by a sense of fear and victimization since Sept. 11, 2001, as anyone who listens to their talk shows, or has appeared on them, can attest.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.