The Female of the Species

July 23, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

While Americans titillate themselves with O.J. trivia, Canadians are experiencing somewhat different emotions -- the revulsion and horror of a murder trial even more gripping than the circus in Los Angeles.

Whatever he is guilty of, O.J. Simpson is not accused of random violence and murder. His trial fascinates us in large part because of his celebrity status, but also because it touches on the jealousy and rage that, alas, are not uncommon passions between men and women.

Canada's notorious murderer, now on trial in a Toronto courtroom, taps even darker fears. His school-girl victims didn't know him. They were not killed in a swift act of rage but after days of captivity during which they were subjected to sexual assaults, beatings and degrading treatment. After being strangled, one of them was dismembered and encased in concrete.

More horrifying still, several hours of this criminal activity were captured on videotape by the murderer and his wife. Now divorced, Karla Homolka plea-bargained a manslaughter conviction and a 12-year sentence for her role.

While reporters and commentators can't seem to get their fill of the Simpson trial, some observers in Toronto worry about the mental health of the jurors, court officials and reporters who day after day absorb the lurid details of the case against Paul Bernardo, a 30-year-old former bookkeeper charged in two murders and accused of a number of violent rapes.

And now, after testimony this month by Homolka, there is the perplexing question of her role: the evil sexual predator or the fearful battered wife?

Was she the adoring girl friend who literally stopped at nothing to please Bernardo and ensure he would not leave her before she could play the role of the fairy-tale bride? (The wedding took place the same day the remains of the first victim were discovered, 11 days after her death and dismemberment.) Or was she the victim of a ruthless man, fearful for her own safety?

The defense -- two of Ontario's best criminal lawyers, who are paid a public-defender rate for their work in the trial -- stressed the stream of maudlin love notes Homolka constantly wrote to Bernardo, the pictures of her blowing kisses to the camera as it recorded her participation in the sexual assaults, her complaints to friends that her parents' grief over her younger sister's death took their attention away from her wedding plans. (She has admitted to police that her sister's death, first judged accidental, actually came after she helped Bernardo drug and sexually assault the girl, who then choked on her own vomit.) ''Amoral'' is one of the kinder descriptions of this behavior.

But in several weeks on the stand she never wavered from her assertion that she did not participate in the actual killings. Even so, the horror of these murders and the details of her involvement (she helped lure the second victim to the car by asking directions) are prompting Canadians to question the leniency of her sentence.

As Homolka was making headlines in Toronto, halfway across the country two 14-year-old girls were being charged in the slaying of a 34-year-old man they flagged down late one night in Calgary. When he resisted their efforts to steal his car, they stabbed him so severely he quickly bled to death.

''Violent crime by women rising?'' asked Toronto's respected Globe and Mail in a story summarizing expert commentary on what seemed a flurry of brutality by girls and women. Not surprisingly, this is a subject that elicits strong opinions.

Between 1983 and 1993, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics recorded a 550 percent jump in the number of females charged with violent crimes under the country's Young Offenders' Act. What accounts for this? Some suggest the changing roles of women also mean that their roles in criminal activity are shifting, making them more likely to take a lead in violent crime rather than a secondary role.

Others disagree, citing a rise in violent crime by both males and females. And with respect to young people, one criminologist points to society's tendency to classify as crimes more incidents such as schoolyard scuffles that in an earlier time would have been quickly settled by a principal.

Yet none of this explains why 14-year-old girls would kill for a car. Or whether Karla Homolka was the fearful victim or the essential accomplice. Could she be both?

It is those kinds of questions that turn criminal trials into dramas that grow larger than life.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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