Karla: A Pact with the Devil

by Stephen Williams
456 pages,
ISBN: 2895940002

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Maligning the Messenger
by John Degen

The Bernardo/Homolka crimes and trials of the 1990s were as much about the excesses of the sensational press as they were about the failures of a particular police investigation and subsequent prosecution. In fact, with those two equally compelling tributaries to follow, one could be forgiven for forgetting the main stream of the story is one of cruelty, murder and the hideous moral twists to be found in humanity.
That this latest book to offer insight into some of Canada's most notorious crimes should also be an easy target for accusations of sensationalism is sadly ironic, especially when one considers the good, hard work of the author, Stephen Williams, in researching the stunning official incompetence that will result in Karla Homolka walking free in a couple of years, and in cleverly tapping into the cagey mind and weak character of a brutal criminal.
Williams' publisher, Pierre Turgeon of Cantos and Trait d'union made a big splash for his fledgling publishing firm by choosing Karla as his first book in English after most other English-language presses had shunned it. The decision to reproduce graphic evidence photos in the book further increased the noise around Karla when it first hit shelves. Lawyer Tim Danson, representing the families of two of Bernardo and Homolka's victims, encouraged a voluntary censorship of the title among booksellers, and called for an investigation of Stephen Williams, suggesting two of the photos used were either illegally obtained or broke long-standing publication bans surrounding the case. Naturally, the press-friendly Danson couldn't have done more for the success of Karla if he'd been hired by Williams and Turgeon to do PR on the title.
While undoubtedly good for sales, the hype around Karla: A Pact with the Devil seems all the more silly when one gets past the lurid image of a red-eyed smiling killer on the cover, and actually reads Williams' fascinating account of Karla Homolka's history of prosecution and incarceration, often told by Homolka herself in whiny, self-serving letters to the author. And this is really what the book is aboutłthe clumsy and legally dubious attempts by the Canadian corrections system to punish Karla Homolka beyond the traditional limits of her equally clumsy and dubious court-approved sentencing. That Williams managed to develop a correspondence with the same wily and egomaniacal killer he pilloried in an earlier book speaks to his incredible skill as a documentarist. Should Tim Danson ever get around to reading this book, he may find he has Williams to thank for opening up new avenues to the kind of righteous outrage that attracts reporters to press conferences.
Williams constructs a furiously detailed argument showing how Ms. Homolka is almost certainly guilty as hell of all the horror one can imagine connected to her case, yet was saved from a life sentence by careerist police officers, complacent mental health professionals and a generally lazy prosecution who saw an easy path to nailing Paul Bernardo and so took it, despite what must have been deep and troubling doubts about the star witness in their case. Williams does not question the possibility of Karla's genuine status as a battered and abused 'compliant victim' of the sexually sadistic rapist she married; he would just have preferred to see that status tested in open court. Instead, Homolka was rushed into her deal as a victim, and then later ill-treated by a prison system that decided after the fact to see her as a sexual criminal.
It is popularly held that Karla's deal would never have been offered her had the police and prosecution been aware of the starring role she played in most of Bernardo's worst crimes, but Williams is meticulous in his deconstruction of this idea. He digs into police and prosecution interviews with Karla in the days before her deal was finalized, showing that those most intimately involved in the case could not have been unaware of Karla's culpability. If this research is accurate, the picture drawn is one of official near-sightedness in the face of persistent, self-serving deception. Pretty much the only thing Karla needed to do to get her sweet deal was tell the undiluted truth, and yet Williams reveals her stringing together clumsy deceptions time and again, and how time and again these deceptions were glossed over, ignored or explained away by the people who should have used them to nail her. Despite her lies and even some early videotape evidence that clearly shows her involved in an attack on Jane Doe, the deal stood, balanced precariously on a hastily constructed platform of spousal abuse and emotional torment.
Later, of course, the full extent of the-horror-that-is-Karla was revealed in the Bernardo trial, and then still later we witnessed Karla getting her degree and celebrating her birthday in a pretty dress. All too late to do anything about reversing her deal, of course, and as it should bełthe law is the law, and a reversible plea bargain makes future necessary plea bargains untenable. Better to just swallow the bitter pill of unfixable past incompetence and move on, having learned a valuable lesson. Yet sadly, as Williams documents, we're not allowed to move on, and we seem to have learned very little. The ineptitude of prosecution is followed by the ineptitude of incarceration, and we are subjected to the embarrassing spectacle of our prison system trying desperately to fight against inevitability and exact from Karla the justice it so desperately craves. Despite being a model prisoner, Karla is routinely denied her traditional privileges and a normal timeline for early release. At one point, Karla is subjected to a punitive transfer as payback for refusing to submit to tests she is under no legal obligation to take. By engaging in their own form of frontier justice, the Canadian corrections system thereby opens itself up to all sorts of dangerous and embarrassing outcomes, not the least of which is how incredibly ham-fisted it comes off in books like this. Karla Homolka seems to be one ambitious lawyer away from the kind of disastrously embarrassing lawsuit we all squirmed about in the Airbus investigation.
Should we feel sorry for Karla Homolka because the prison system is making her life more difficult than the law prescribes? Williams certainly does not feel sorry for her, but he does express a moral disappointment in the justice bureaucracy for consistently getting everything ass-backwards, to the detriment of its continued credibility. Stephen Williams writes a remarkable document, of interest to anyone who believes mistakes should be brought forward into the light and examined rather than hidden away to bury the shame of them. If Williams' careful research, gutsy interviewing and provocative publishing style do nothing else, perhaps they will at least embarrass the powers that be into sharpening their game.

A note on the publication of Karla:
Much has been made in the press and throughout the Canadian publishing industry about the use of sensational photographs and a cruelly ironic cover to sell this book. I say sell it however you can within the boundaries of the law, and push at those boundaries wherever possible. This is an important story; people should read it. On the other hand, Cantos has done its book and its readers a disservice by allowing lax editing and proofreading to disfigure Karla: A Pact With the Devil. The book shows unmistakable stylistic signs of a rush to publication and has, by far, the greatest number of typos I have ever seen in a professionally published work. I admire the debate and public conversation this book has inspired. That Turgeon should hand his and Williams's detractors such an easy means of attack is a shame. ņ

John Degen is a Toronto poet and novelist.

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