On Sept. 1, 1995, 25 years seemed far, far away.
That was the day Paul Bernardo was convicted on two charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, forcible confinement, aggravated sexual assault and committing an indignity to a dead body. The sexual sadist had strangled and defiled teenagers Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. From the witness stand, Bernardo admitted to all of the crimes except the murders, insisting the abducted teens died when they were left alone with ex-wife Karla Homolka.
Of all the horrors exposed in that lengthy trial — jurors watched videos the abominable couple had made of the repeated sexual assaults — what was seared into the memory of this reporter were the howls of anguish from Leslie’s mom, Debbie Mahaffy. While the French family left the courtroom whenever the videos were played, Mrs. Mahaffy chose to remain. To bear witness, to stand by her daughter and, I suspected, to punish herself. Leslie had encountered Bernardo in a neighbour’s backyard the night she disappeared, locked out of her house by parents who were exercising a bit of tough love, trying to teach their wayward daughter a lesson about respecting curfews.
From a pew in the back of the courtroom, Mrs. Mahaffy laid her head in a friend’s lap, moaning and wailing at the sound of her daughter’s torture, the sound of her daughter’s voice, pleading for her life, begging to see her kid brother just one more time.
I don’t know how Mrs. Mahaffy could stand it.
Bernardo was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for a quarter-century, retroactive to the day of his arrest, Feb. 17, 1993. Subsequently he pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of Karla’s younger sister, Tammy Homolka — the 15-year-old had choked on her own vomit while drugged and unconscious, sexually assaulted by the couple — and confessed to raping 14 young women. He was designated, on consent, a dangerous offender, which carries an indeterminate sentence. Bernardo could, theoretically, spend the rest of his life behind bars.
On Wednesday, Bernardo was denied a parole bid. He can’t reapply for another two years.
The mothers of slain teenagers Leslie and Kristen made powerful victim impact statements, as they had prepared to do on several previous occasions when the felon indicated he would seek a parole hearing, only to withdraw his application. That’s a kind of torture, too. No doubt the moms will be back at Millhaven Institution in 2020, if Bernardo mounts another appeal, and every time after that for as long as both shall live.
“I do not want to be in the same room as Bernardo but here I am,” Mrs. Mahaffy told the two-member parole board panel. “The effect of this parole hearing allows Bernardo to abduct our beautiful memories of Leslie as he had inserted himself and the ugliness of her death into our lives yet again.”
Bernardo, said Mrs. Mahaffy, had destroyed her life as well, and that of Leslie’s father, Leslie’s brother. She pointed out, further, that the law at the time of the trial (it has since been changed but can’t be applied retroactively) prevented judges from imposing consecutive life terms and parole ineligibility periods on offenders guilty of committing multiple murders.
“Paul Bernardo is effectively getting a free pass for murdering Kristen French because his parole eligibility remains 25 years. It is wrong.”
Donna French echoed that dismay.
“It’s painfully unthinkable that Paul Bernardo’s parole ineligibility did not change by a single second, a single minute, as a result of his unspeakable murder of Kristen. It so diminishes her life.”
Bernardo spoke extensively, disjointedly, often in a torrent of rushed words, about his cruelties, his emotional disconnect from the victims, and what he framed as a psychological justification — at the time — for his monstrous crimes. “I felt socially and sexually inadequate. I had to dominate in sexual acts, it was the only way I could perform. I offended to raise my self-esteem. I had a disregard for the victims.”
Adding: “it was an explosion of rage… with a fist or a hammer or a flashlight. The more damaged my self-esteem, the more I had to have power and control to overcome that.”
Ah, but he’s a changed man now, Bernardo declared. He has developed insights into himself. Since 2015, he has participated in three intense sex offender programs, hence all the psycho jargon. He’s become a disciple of the intervention treatments he’d rejected for two decades.
Except there is no “cure” for psychopaths and sociopaths. They just become slicker at lying, at mimicking conventional behaviour, when it suits their purpose, and feigning remorse.
“I had a wake-up call when I was arrested. Too late. But I knew I would never reoffend. Heartfelt. There was no way I would ever harm another person again … In the last 26 years I’ve harmed nobody and being in prison is hard. I’m so nice, I’m so compassionate and caring.”
The skepticism of the two parole board interrogators was evident and Bernardo realized it, too. “We’ve spent so much time on how terrible I was. I want you to know who I am now.”
A pathetic and completely self-absorbed lifer, what he is now. And probably that’s to be expected from an inmate who spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. For the one hour daily he’s allowed on the range, it is cleared of other inmates.
The panel heard that Bernardo has tested as low risk for general recidivism, moderate risk for sexual violence and high risk for partner violence. But the panel had to weigh “undue risk” to the public, if allowing Bernardo day or full parole, with correctional supervision for the remainder of his life. What Bernardo proposed, through his lawyer, was conditional release to a nearby facility where all his movements would be monitored.
His own parole officer, Meagan Smith, was categorically opposed to any release. At the start of the hearing, she described the Bernardo of today as “minimal gains noted.” At the end of the hearing, just before the panel deliberated following two hours of wide-ranging questions to Bernardo, who responded with even wider ranging rationalizations and exculpations, Smith said bluntly: “I found Mr. Bernardo presented today as he normally does.”
The thing is, Bernardo will likely some day be freed. Passage of time will remove many of the ever-after grieving family members, if not the rape victims who are younger than the convict. At best, it will be a two-year by two-year reassessment. A younger generation doesn’t entirely grasp the revulsion triggered by Bernardo and Homolka’s crimes. In a social media world, the public is growing numb to porn-crime videos. The appalling crimes will recede in memory. There’s always another “worst-ever” deviant, a serial murderer, a child-killer, a sexual sadist.
He may be a very old man when Bernardo tastes freedom and I might not be alive to document it, but I’m convinced it will happen. I can’t even say it shouldn’t. Because, ultimately, we define ourselves as human beings not by the worst among us, but by our own humane and merciful nature.
Parole, as Bernardo lawyer Fergus O’Connor reminded the board, isn’t clemency or forgiveness. It’s a provision provided by law.
“We abolished the death penalty in Canada in 1976. We no longer hang offenders. But we also do not bury them behind steel walls.”
Some day, a feeble and geriatric Paul Bernardo won’t be deemed a risk.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno