Potential jurors hear graphic details of case against alleged Winnipeg serial killer

Jeremy Skibicki, 37, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the 2022 deaths of three First Nations women — Morgan Harris, 39, Marcedes Myran, 26, and Rebecca Contois, 24 — and a fourth unidentified woman, who was given the name Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman, by community members. (Submitted by Cambria Harris, Donna Bartlett and Darryl Contois - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The 12 people selected to form the jury in the trial of a man accused of killing four women heard graphic allegations of the case against him on Thursday.

Jury selection was held at Winnipeg's courthouse Thursday morning in the trial for Jeremy Skibicki, 37.

He's charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the 2022 deaths of three First Nations women — Morgan Harris, 39, Marcedes Myran, 26, and Rebecca Contois, 24 — and a fourth unidentified woman, who has been given the name Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman, by community members.

Police have said they believe Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe was Indigenous and in her mid-20s, but the location of her remains is unknown.

Roughly two years ago, in mid-May, partial human remains later identified as belonging to Contois were discovered in a garbage bin near a Winnipeg apartment building. The following month, police recovered more of her remains from the Brady Road landfill in south Winnipeg.

Police said their investigation determined the three other women had been killed between March and May 2022 — before Contois died. Myran's and Harris's remains are believed to be in the Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg, police have said.

Skibicki has pleaded not guilty to all four charges against him.

During Thursday's jury selection, 157 people showed up to be considered for Skibicki's case and two others.

Only 21 ended up appearing before Court of King's Bench Justice Richard Saull, a handful of lawyers and Skibicki himself, who sat silently and stared ahead throughout the process.

Several relatives of the victims in the case were also in court for jury selection, which took about an hour and a half.

Before questioning of jurors even began, the judge laid out some of the allegations of the case against Skibicki that have not been made public before — including that he's accused of taking the women home and sexually assaulting some of them.

The potential jurors also heard that Skibicki is then alleged to have killed the women and performed sex acts on their bodies.

"You should not be a juror if you have personal knowledge of the facts of this case," the judge told them.

"The same is true if, from what you've heard or read about the case, you've already made up your mind one way or the other — and you're satisfied that nothing said would change your opinion. Because then, of course, you wouldn't be an impartial juror."

Questions about social media posts, protests

The final jury is made up of nine women and three men, with another woman and man picked as alternates in case they're needed. Just over half the jurors selected for the trial said they'd heard about the case before.

Possible jury members were all asked the same seven yes or no questions by the judge — submitted by lawyers through what's called a "challenge for cause" — and either swore on a Bible, affirmed or swore on an eagle feather.

The questions included whether the potential jurors' ability to judge the evidence without bias would be affected by the fact the victims were Indigenous women, and whether they or any of their family or friends participated in any protests or vigils related to the case.

One woman who ended up being selected to serve on the jury said she hadn't decided whether she thought Skibicki was guilty, but had donated to a camp for one of the victims.

Another woman selected for the jury, when asked whether she had posted anything online about the case, said she didn't have social media — which the judge commended her for.

"Yeah, I know," she said, as people in the room laughed.

One woman had just finished answering the judge's questions when a Crown attorney rose and told the judge he'd forgotten to ask a follow-up question about whether they'd formed an opinion about Skibicki's guilt, which was supposed to be posed depending on how the person answered other questions.

After some back and forth about whether the woman should have been asked the question, the judge said, "It's clear as mud to me, but I'll ask it." The woman was accepted for the jury.

Another woman was dismissed as a juror in the case after responding to a question about whether she would be open to finding someone not criminally responsible for a crime — if the evidence supported it — by saying, "Guilty is guilty."

Others were dismissed for reasons including health issues and travel plans during the trial dates that they couldn't change. Another was dismissed because he had a connection to one of the two dozen witnesses who may be called to testify at trial.

Only seven potential jurors were excused. The jury is scheduled to start hearing evidence on May 8 and continue until June.

How does jury selection work?

Michael Spratt, a criminal law specialist and partner at the Ottawa law firm AGP LLP who is not involved in the Skibicki trial, said the jury selection process in Canada is far different from what we see happening in the United States.

In the U.S., lawyers might hire jury consultants, search through potential jurors' social media histories for evidence of bias or grill them about their beliefs — things that don't happen here, he said.

"I think that there is a tendency in the media and the public to think that, you know, the defence lawyers or Crown prosecutors can skew a case based on who they pick as a juror. And that's far from the truth," said Spratt.

At most, a judge may ask a potential juror if they feel they can be unbiased in the case, either because of media coverage or personal prejudices, and possibly dismiss them because of those answers.

But lawyers in Canada are no longer allowed to make what are known as "peremptory challenges" — objecting to a proposed juror without stating a reason — after changes in 2019, following public outrage over the 2018 trial of Gerald Stanley.

Stanley, a white Saskatchewan farmer, was acquitted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of 22-year-old Indigenous man Colten Boushie. During the jury selection process for his trial, all visibly Indigenous candidates were challenged and excluded by Stanley's defence team through peremptory challenges.

While lawyers are still allowed to use a challenge for cause — which is what happened during Skibicki's jury selection, and allows them to have potential jurors asked "a very limited question about any bias or prejudice that they may have" — only a judge can now ultimately decide to dismiss someone, Spratt said.

"So the ability to exclude a juror is very limited. The information that we have about jurors is very limited and that is, you know, a pretty significant change from what we've historically had in Canada," he said.

The process of selecting jurors also often begins with a pool of hundreds of people that then gets whittled down to the 12 who will decide the case, in part because many people can't afford to take time off work — especially for longer trials, which often take weeks to wrap up, he said.

Support is available for anyone affected by these reports and the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Immediate emotional assistance and crisis support are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through a national hotline at 1-844-413-6649.

You can also access, through the government of Canada, health support services such as mental health counselling, community-based support and cultural services, and some travel costs to see elders and traditional healers. Family members seeking information about a missing or murdered loved one can access Family Information Liaison Units.