Lawyers for families argue gunman’s spouse must be witness in N.S. shooting inquiry

Nova Scotia·New

Lawyers representing participants in the inquiry looking into the mass shooting in Nova Scotia that killed 22 people and injured others are debating whether the gunman's spouse should be called as a witness.

The burned remains of the gunman's cottage, seen here with the unmarked Ford Taurus former police sedan parked outside. The Mass Casualty Commission says the gunman attacked his partner in their cottage before he went on to kill 13 neighbours on April 18, 2020. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Lawyers representing families of 20 of the people killed during the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia say the public inquiry examining the violent rampage will not get a clear picture of what happened unless it hears directly from the gunman's spouse.

The Mass Casualty Commission presented documents this week summarizing what it believes happened in Portapique, N.S. They state the gunman attacked his partner of 19 years, Lisa Banfield, and proceeded to kill 13 neighbours after she escaped and hid in the woods.

Gabriel Wortman killed nine more people while disguised as a Mountie the following morning and drove nearly 200 kilometres through rural Nova Scotia, most of it in a decommissioned police cruiser he'd adapted to look like a real one.

On Wednesday in Halifax, lawyers for participants in the inquiry weighed in on whether it's necessary for Banfield to speak to the commission about what happened. The commission has based its preliminary findings on lengthy interviews Banfield gave to the RCMP.

Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law said "it's plain and obvious that there is no witness more critical" than Banfield, particularly given she was with the gunman in days and hours leading up to the killings.

Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law represents 23 participants in the inquiry, including more than half of the families of people killed on April 18-19, 2020. (CBC)

Banfield can shed light on "what preceded his change, countenance and behaviour," said McCulloch, whose firm is representing 23 participants in the inquiry, including the majority of the families of people killed.

McCulloch said she has significant concerns about Banfield's account, saying it's based on "incomplete and untested statements given to the RCMP."

Questioning statements to police

Specifically, McCulloch said much has been left unsaid with regard to how the gunman's partner managed to escape from the shooter, given Banfield has said there were handcuffs involved and that she crawled through the glass divider between the front and back seat of a replica cruiser.

The lawyer also suggested Banfield did not appear to suffer injuries that might be expected if she was shot at and then spent a cold night outside in below freezing temperatures.

Given where Banfield told police she hid, McCulloch said the location was "critically located to potentially enable [Banfield] to observe a great deal of the activity that took place in Portapique overnight," including the movements of community members and RCMP officers.

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O'Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

Joshua Bryson, who represents the family of victims Joy and Peter Bond, said while Banfield was hiding in the woods, 13 people were killed and she could shed light on the timeline.

"What did she hear? What did she see?" said Bryson.

Linda Hupman, who represents the families of victims Lillian Campbell, Jolene Oliver, Emily and Aaron Tuck, echoed to the commission that it can't complete its work without Banfield.

"Our belief and our submission to you, this proceeding can have no final report without hearing directly from Ms. Banfield," she said.

Trial starts in 3 weeks

Banfield is accused of giving the gunman the ammunition he used. She is scheduled to go to trial on March 22 in Dartmouth provincial court.

Her lawyer, Craig Zeeh, said via a Zoom appearance that his client has provided four long statements to police. Given the legal jeopardy associated with the criminal charges, her legal team will be "steadfast in [its] position that she will not, at this time, open herself up to further interviews," he said.

Zeeh said Banfield will co-operate fully with the commission to help give a better perspective on "what the big picture is" in relation to the perpetrator and his background. But he took issue with the calls to challenge her evidence, saying Banfield did her best to recall what happened on April 18-19, 2020.

The remains of the shooter's home on Portapique Beach Road, N.S., taken May 13, 2020. His partner has given statements to RCMP that she was in the cottage when he doused it in gasoline and lit it on fire.(Steve Lawrence/CBC)

He wasn't the only person opposed.

Lawyer Anastacia Merrigan, who represents a coalition of groups including the Transition Houses Association of Nova Scotia, Be the Peace Institute and Women's Shelters Canada, said it would be "neither appropriate nor trauma informed" to call Banfield as a witness.

"Requiring Ms. Banfield to relive this trauma and to face the criticism and the sort of detailed testing of evidence as suggested by counsel this morning, causes other victims of intimate partner and gender-based violence to fear the reporting process," she said.

Merrigan also took issue with how commission counsel Roger Burrill described the timeline in his presentations this week, saying a reference to the Blair home as the place the violence commenced minimized the violence Banfield experienced prior to that.

Commission wants to reassess in April

One of the lawyers for the Mass Casualty Commission also weighed in. Emily Hill, senior counsel, said the request to hear from Banfield was premature as her background with the perpetrator will be presented later in the inquiry after feedback from participants.

"We think it would make more sense to wait and reassess the situation in early April when we expect her trial will be complete," she said.

Hill said Banfield isn't the only witness who has declined to speak with the commission, noting it has the power to subpoena people to testify, but not to force them to give interviews.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 12 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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