Man accused of killing four women, disposing of bodies, pleads not guilty

Pretrial proceedings for the man police have charged with the deaths of four Indigenous women in Winnipeg started Monday with not guilty pleas entered from the accused. Morgan Modjeski reports.

By Morgan Modjeski, CityNews and The Canadian Press

A man accused of killing four women, two of whose remains are believed to be in a Winnipeg-area landfill, maintained his innocence on the first day of a pretrial hearing.

Jeremy Skibicki appeared in court Monday and pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the deaths of First Nations women Rebecca Contois, Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran and an unidentified woman who Indigenous leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe or Buffalo Woman.

Family members and supporters, many wearing shirts displaying images of Contois, Harris and Myran, filled the large courtroom. Some gasped as Skibicki entered his pleas.

First Nations ceremonies were recognized by the court before the start of the hearing. The courtroom was smudged and blessed with prayer and song.

Four large cloths – black, red, yellow and white – were hung on the walls of the courtroom to represent the four directions. A buffalo headdress was also placed on a table with an eagle feather fan.

A red, ribbon dress was laid out on a chair to represent Buffalo Woman.

Police have said they believe the four women were killed over two months in the spring of 2022, although only the body of Contois has been found.

Her partial remains were discovered last year in a garbage bin in the city and in the Brady Road landfill.

Police believe the remains of Harris and Myran are in the Prairie Green Landfill north of Winnipeg. Their families have spent nearly a year calling for a search of the landfill after police declined to search the area, citing safety concerns.

The courtroom, standing room only at times, as the deaths and subsequent charges has spurred further calls for action to protect Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited community members in Winnipeg and across Canada. 

Dana Kopnitsky, a supporter of the victims’ families and a distant relative of 24-year-old Contois, was outside of the courthouse Monday, saying she’s hoping for a conviction in the trial, set to start this spring, not hiding her anger.

“I’ve been hoping for a conviction right from the start,” said Kopnitsky. “To be honest, if I was the judge, I’d say: ‘Send him to the women’s. pen. and put him in the yard for all the women. Let’s see how tough he really is.’ This is not O.K. to due to anybody.” 

And although the trial, which will forego a preliminary hearing, will not be taking place for a few months the perimeters in which it will occur were in the early stages of being laid out in the courtroom on Monday.

His trial is scheduled to begin in April.

Skibicki’s lawyers are arguing their client should have a judge-alone trial.

“An accused should have an unfettered right to select the mode of trial that they want — that’s our main issue,” said Leonard Tailleur told reporters Monday outside court.

Under the Criminal Code, a first-degree murder charge automatically results in a jury trial — spare consent by both the accused and the Crown — but Skibicki’s defence counsel, lead by Leonard Tailleur, argued such a requirement was a violation of the accused’s rights, explaining the motion outside of court. 

“The crowns has all kinds of discretion that they exercise, they already exercised one big one — with direct inditing our client — so we couldn’t have a preliminary hearing. The next thing they want is to also determine the mode of trial, and at the end of the day we say: ‘No.’ at some point you have to say stop to this and the fact of the matter is, the criminal code, there’s all kinds of offences in which the accused has a perfect right to re-elect and not be fettered by the Crown.” 

King’s counsel, lead by Chris Vanderhooft, argued in court case evidence to support the motion was “rather thin,” and the Criminal Code was clear, with Chief Justice Glenn Joyal set to deliver his decision on the motion Tuesday, when pre-trial evidence submissions are set to begin.

The rest of the pretrial will be under a publication ban.

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