Cindy Gladue murder trial added to the indignity of her death

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Photo: flickr/ Tracie Hall

Warning: This story contains some graphic and disturbing details.

More than a week after the verdict that found Bradley Barton not guilty of Cindy Gladue's murder, many people are still shocked.

She bled to death in the bathtub of the hotel room of Barton because of an 11-centimetre injury to her vagina in 2011.

Most shockingly is not how Cindy died, although it should be. What is most horrific is that a Canadian court allowed the most intimate part of a woman's body to be evidence in a jury trial. 

As a lawyer who represents families in inquests, death investigations and victims of crime, I understand the need for medical evidence. I understand that dissection of a woman's pelvis region may be necessary during a post-mortem examination to determine the cause of death so medical experts can reach conclusions on the cause of the injury.

What I cannot understand is why it was necessary for two medical professionals to demonstrate their theories and opinions in front of the jury using the human remains of the victim.

Cindy Gladue was a mother. Cindy Gladue was a daughter. Cindy Gladue was a Cree woman. Cindy Gladue was a human being regardless of her profession as a sex worker.

Using her vagina as evidence dehumanizes her. Privacy interests do not end at death and there is nothing more private than the intimate body parts of a woman.

Court insensitivity   

Many women would never allow their intimate body parts so publicly exposed, even in the pursuit of justice. Many men would shudder at the idea of their mother's, daughters', sisters' or wives' vagina in a courtroom.

Why would a court ever allow such a display of disrespect and degradation to occur to a victim's body? 

Technology should have played a significant role in any demonstration by expert witnesses. Instead of using other tools and alternatives, Cindy's vagina was used as a demonstration tool. This is both offensive and re-victimizing.

With modern technology that can take any image or object and create a 3D simulation, why was it necessary to display Cindy's vagina to the jury? Using any human body part to demonstrate a difference in expert opinion is brutal enough, but it was especially inhuman to use the actual vagina of the victim.

The legal test for admissibility was used when deciding whether or not Cindy's vagina should be real evidence in the trial. I am surprised it was not excluded based on the integrity of the proceeding.

I believe that four issues should have been given more weight when considering if Cindy's vagina should have been excluded as evidence. 

These include: 

  1. The dignity of an individual, including her privacy rights.

  2. What impact the use of her actual remains had on Cindy's family and their faith in the justice system.

  3. The unorthodox approach to evidence was unnecessarily given the medical experts had other ways to demonstrate their positions. 

  4. The potential for vicarious trauma to those in the courtroom and the public in general.

Peace for Cindy

Cindy died four years ago. Her body is not whole in its resting place. In any other context this could be seen as desecration of her remains, but in this judicial process it is called preservation of evidence. It is simply horrific. It appears that the court did not contemplate Cindy's dignity, death rites, or any Indigenous perspective on caring for the dead.

Cindy's remains are still being held as evidence. I hope that they do not get tendered or admitted as an exhibit should the Crown appeal the decision and be granted a new trial.

Like others, I hope that Cindy can be made whole and she receives proper ceremonial death rites.

Cindy's family was in the courtroom. The mere thought of Cindy's loss of privacy and dignity must have been heartbreaking for them. When families of victims steel themselves and commit to witness justice for their loved one, any court process can be difficult.

No amount of screening would have made it easier for family and friends to know that Cindy's actual vagina was being used to demonstrate the injury. It does not matter that the vagina was in a separate room, it was being live-streamed into the hearing. 

New precedent? 

I am not looking forward to a future where justice includes dehumanizing victims. I am really hopeful that the murder trial of Cindy Gladue is not the starting point in which we will see the use of intimate body parts as evidence as a normal part of the process. 

This trial exemplifies how the Canadian legal system does not adequately address indigenous concerns and protocols; refuses to protect those we know are most victimized; and shows that the justice system is not resolving the sociological phenomenon of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Christa Big Canoe is the Legal Advocacy Director, Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto.

This piece originally appeared on the CBC and is reprinted with permission from the author.

Photo: flickr/ Tracie Hall

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