Watching the Williams trial yesterday, it was hard not to miss the anguish on the faces of the crowd, the reporters, even the police. Over and over, reporters would simply say the details were too ghastly to report. Suffice it to say, the women died horrible deaths.
And yet, like a twisted car accident, no one could look away.
I often wondered how covering trials of this kind affected the reporters in the courtroom. Did they become victims, too?
A few years back, when I was editing a magazine for psychiatrists, I decided to do a story on the impact covering stories of this nature had on the journalists who sat there, day after day, listening to gruesome testimony, watching the heartbreak on the faces of the families and seeing video and photographs of the deaths of innocent victims.
I asked a number of journalists who covered the Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka trials to tell me about their experience. Everyone turned me down except for Nick Pron, the crime reporter for the Toronto Star. Pron had not only covered the trial, but had also written a best-selling book, Lethal Marriage, about the twisted relationship between Bernardo and Homolka, a union which ended with the torture, death and dismemberment of two innocent girls in the Niagara area.
Nick was only too happy to write a piece for me. I’d like to share some of his insights.
Nick recounted his feelings as he sat through days of testimony, watching Paul Bernardo smirking in the prison’s box, and seeing the anguish on the faces of the French and Mahaffy family and friends.
Early on, he began to have reoccurring nightmares.
Nick was walking down the street, looking over his shoulder, when he heard footsteps.
“I picked up the pace as the footsteps drew closer. Too late, I turned just as Bernardo lunged at me out of the darkness from behind, knife in hand. Most of the rape victims in Scarborough were attacked in a similar fashion. I always woke up and escaped. They never did.”
In another dream, Bernardo was at his door, trying to force his way into his home. Fortunately, the security chain was on, and Nick closed the door.
“Breathing a sigh of relief, I checked the peephole. But it wasn’t Bernardo outside my door. It was Yoda, that character from Star Wars standing there grinning. Suddenly an ooze crept through the door and enveloped me. I always awoke just as the slimy substance was going into my mouth choking me.”
Nick told another reporter at the trial.
“Nice dream,” she said. “I’ll see yours and raise you one.”
In her dream, the reporter was actually inside Bernardo’s head, watching through his eyes as he stalked one of his rape victims. She tried screaming in vain, but she could do nothing to stop the assault; she couldn’t even close her eyes as he raped the woman.
Nick hatched a plan to ”rearrange that pretty face”. He fantasized about leaping over the bench and pummeling Bernardo while he was helpless in handcuffs, giving him punch after punch for every woman he had assaulted or victimized.
He began to think he had lost his mind. He shared his dark thoughts with a few other reporters at the bar, who told him they wanted to do the same thing. They didn’t want to kill him, just hurt him.
After the trial, Nick tried transferring out of crime, but it didn’t happen. Still, he couldn’t walk down the hall of the courthouse where the trial had been staged.
After his book was launched, Nick felt guilty about his success, but kept his feelings of remorse to himself. He tried to avoid talking about Bernardo, but as the author of a successful book, he was hounded for interviews. Suddenly, all he wanted to talk about was the case. He became obsessed. He began to feel like a “media whore”.
Nick says he wished he’d gotten some professional help after the Bernardo trial. It took away a piece of his life.
But then he got the opportunity to face his demons. He got permission to pay a visit to Bernardo in prison.
“Gone was his smirk as I stared up at him in his jail cell about three paces long and an arm’s width across, the standard size. I wanted to scream at him, tell him what a monster he was . The words got caught in my throat. I thought of my plan to beat him up that day so long ago. But I left the ‘Bernardo wing’ of the prison happy he was being punished for his crimes, and would every day for the rest of his life live in a home, about the size of a small walk-in closet. On that day in Kingston, I stopped believing in capital punishment. “
The nightmares stopped, and Nick says he was able to move on, but has never been able to forget.
“I want to move on. I don’t want (Bernardo and Homolka) rattling around in my head anymore. I want them to go away. Disappear forever. The dream have mercifully stopped but not the memories. I guess in crimes as horrid as this, they never will. “
A word to the reporters covering the Williams trial. Get some counselling. Otherwise, protect your heart.