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Editor's column: Time-wasting the true crime in court

Richmond News editor Eve Edmonds questions the processes which appear to grind our already struggling justice system to a slow walk
rocanini trial 2
The first day of trial for Astrid Maria Secreve, 76, and Michel Jean-Jacque Berthiaume, 74, for an alleged racist incident at Rocanini Coffee Roasters in Steveston has concluded.

It’s not the most egregious crime ever committed in Richmond, but it has clearly touched a nerve.

Astrid Maria Secreve and Michel Jean-Jacque Berthiaume, who said he now goes by Eric Berthiaume, are currently in Richmond provincial court for allegedly pouring coffee on a coffee shop floor, tossing an empty or almost empty cup at the barista and uttering racist slurs.

According to the barista, this is all because she had asked them to adhere to COVID protocols.

The physical nature of the confrontation is concerning — throwing a coffee cup (be it empty or partially empty which is at issue in the trial) at someone’s face is not okay — but what’s really stirring the pot are alleged comments directed at the Asian barista such as “Coronavirus is you” and “ Chinese.”

It’s that racial component that has brought out anti-Asian hate protesters standing with signs outside the courthouse. It has also brought out local politicians wanting to be seen taking a stand against racism.

In other words, the case has become bigger than a coffee shop scuffle and points to the reaction against the anti-Asian hate incidents that we’ve seen bubble up, particularly since the start of the pandemic. As one of the protest organizers said, the case is significant because it’s so rare for an anti-Asian incident to make its way to court.

And this is where we need to pause.

I understand the frustration among those who believe incidents like these are too often dismissed and not taken seriously. I agree racist incidents of all kinds should be met with impactful consequences.

That said, something is twisted about the way this case is winding its way through the system. Actually, it’s not just this case but many that we’ve reported on recently.

First point of order in the coffee shop incident: the accused couple claim their legal aid funding has run out and they can’t afford a lawyer. Hence, they are representing themselves.

They asked the judge to appoint them a lawyer, but she said that wasn’t in her jurisdiction. I don’t know why or what that means, but the result is a Gong-show, or for those not of my era, a bizarre and tedious trial. What we have now are two lay people trying to defend themselves and taking up an enormous amount of extremely expensive court time doing it because the judge has to repeatedly interrupt proceedings to guide them through the process.

The case was expected to last two days but is now scheduled of an additional three. This is to say nothing of how smart it is to have the alleged abuser cross examine the victim.

Meanwhile, in last week’s paper, we ran a story about two roommates at UBC getting into an argument at dinner. The heated words led to some grabbing and slapping and broken dishes, but no injuries. The case resulted in no charges, no sentencing, just a one-year peace bond, meaning the accused was to avoid the victim for that time. This belongs in court?

And then there was the murder trial we also reported on (see page 6) where a judge, defence lawyers, prosecution, two accused, not to mention regular court staff including court reporter, sheriff, et al. convened only to learn that one of the lawyers hadn’t contacted someone about scheduling to decide the next court date.

How many thousands of dollars were spent on that complete non-event?

I’m not the first to call out the expensive inefficiencies of the Canadian court system, but I still find it appalling. And it’s not just about the money. When we clog up the system with lay people defending themselves, squabbles between roommates and careless organization, we wreak havoc with people’s lives in countless ways.

I have no idea what the fix is, and whatever it is I’m sure it’s not easy, but this isn’t sustainable. Perhaps it’s time the system itself was put on trial.