Prior assault charge against alleged Winnipeg serial killer stayed after complainant deemed unreliable
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
A 2021 assault charge against accused serial killer Jeremy Skibicki was stayed in part because the judge found the testimony of his estranged wife unreliable due to her memory issues.
The woman’s mother said she was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome after the alleged attack, and that had an effect on her memory.
The assault charge against Skibicki stemmed from an incident in which the mother alleges her daughter was chased down an apartment hallway with a knife. It left the woman with injuries from being punched in the head and hit over the head with a cane, according to the mother.
A spokesperson for the province said the assault charge was re-evaluated after a judge “made findings about the reliability” of the woman’s testimony in a separate trial involving the woman and Skibicki around the same time.
That trial was connected with an alleged violation of an order banning Skibicki from contacting the woman.
Her mother said she and her daughter were furious when they learned the assault charge wouldn’t have its day in court.
“My daughter yelled at the Crown … ‘I hope when you put your head down at night, you know you’re letting somebody out'” who may hurt or kill someone, said the mother.
CBC is not naming her to protect the identity of her daughter, who is a victim of abuse.
The assault charge was stayed after a trial in December 2021, just a few months before the first killing Skibicki is now accused of.
He’s charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of four women in Winnipeg — Rebecca Contois, Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran and a fourth unidentified woman Indigenous leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.
Police believe Buffalo Woman was the first of the four to be killed, on or around March 15, 2022.
Skibicki’s lawyer says his client intends to plead not guilty on all four first-degree murder counts.
Just before the assault charge was stayed, Skibicki was acquitted in the trial involving the alleged court order violation during a Dec. 14, 2021, hearing in Manitoba provincial court.
A judge found he couldn’t rely exclusively on the testimony of the woman, who has post-concussion syndrome and struggles with memory.
At a 2019 hearing, where the woman was granted a protection order against Skibicki, she said she suffered from memory issues after a fall three or four years prior.
The woman’s mother said those memory issues got worse after the alleged assault.
In acquitting Skibicki of the alleged court order violation, Judge Sidney Lerner also noted he was puzzled why police — having seen the woman’s cellphone, which she said held evidence of the alleged contact from Skibicki — didn’t seize any evidence from it.
Stayed charges ‘devastating’ for survivors: lawyer
A lawyer who works with an organization that gives family law support to women leaving abusive relationships says getting an assault charge to the courtroom can be a difficult process for survivors of intimate-partner violence.
If a charge is stayed at the end of that long path — after coming forward, dealing with police and potentially testifying in court — it can feel like a failure for the survivor, said Pamela Cross, legal director at Luke’s Place, in Ontario’s Durham region.
“It’s devastating, in a word — absolutely devastating,” Cross said.
“Now she’s got to go back and sort of rebuild her whole sense of esteem, which was already destroyed by the abuser and has now been destroyed by the system that she thought was going to help her.”
She said that effect can also make a survivor less likely to call police again.
Cross said Canada’s criminal justice system isn’t well-suited to respond to intimate partner violence. For one thing, it’s a crime that often has no witnesses, leaving the courts with a “she said, he said” dilemma.
“And often the abuser can come across looking much more believable because he’s not traumatized, he hasn’t been harmed. And also, he may be somebody that the players in the court system can identify with better than they can identify with the survivor,” she said.
Many working within the court system also don’t have a deep understanding of the long-term impacts of intimate partner violence — including traumatic brain injuries, which Cross said are common.
“There’s no external physical evidence of what’s happened, but there has been damage done internally that can affect the survivor in terms of her ability to remember coherently or remember in consecutive order what’s happened,” she said.
“That then can make her look like a less-than-reliable witness.”
Zita Somakoko, who heads the advocacy group Breaking the Silence on Domestic Violence, said there needs to be a collaborative effort to provide more training on the issue to people working in places like the court system.
“Victims get punished at every angle,” Somakoko said.
“And then all we have for the perpetrator? Slap on the wrist.”
The provincial spokesperson said new Crown attorneys in Manitoba get a week-long domestic violence training session and more specific domestic violence training for those moving to work in the specialty unit.
Crowns working with traumatized victims and witnesses also get additional training, the spokesperson said.
Challenges in prosecuting
While having a witness deemed unreliable because of memory issues can be a challenge in some cases, prosecutors in that situation have options to bolster their evidence, said Brandon Trask, an assistant professor in the University of Manitoba’s faculty of law.
That can include submitting a witness’s statement as evidence if it was made before the onset of their memory issues, or calling expert evidence to help the court understand why the witness can’t remember certain things, he said.
“That’s not going to be a very common thing that you see in court. There are a lot of reasons for that, not the least of which would be sort of a resourcing issue, because expert evidence is very costly and time-consuming to get,” Trask said.
Throughout a case, Crown attorneys also have to constantly ask themselves two questions, he said.
The first is whether there’s a reasonable likelihood of conviction, which comes down to whether there’s enough evidence. If there is, the second question comes up: whether it’s in the public interest to proceed, which can consider factors such as how serious the alleged crime is and how much time has passed, Trask said.
Introducing similar-fact evidence if there are sufficient similarities with a previous incident is also an option, he said.
In 2015, Skibicki was convicted of assaulting a different woman, who was then his common-law partner. The agreed facts in that case included him pulling his pregnant partner’s hair, punching her several times in the face, trying to strangle her and threatening to kill her if she called police.
But similar-fact evidence is a tricky area of the law that comes with major risks — including the potential for the defence to use it as grounds for an appeal if there’s a conviction, Trask said.
While prosecutors in Canada can request officers investigate a matter further, they can’t direct police operations, which can present some difficulties, he said.
If too little evidence was gathered and there’s no suggestion more will come in, not proceeding with charges is often the only choice Crown attorneys are left with.
That means even a solid witness statement can be affected by the fact that witnesses’ memories generally fade over time — which is why it’s helpful for prosecutors to have other evidence that corroborates what they’re saying, Trask said.
Cross says while a survivor of intimate partner violence may feel she’s the one who failed if her testimony doesn’t lead to a conviction, she’s not ultimately the one responsible.
“She has the right to rely on a criminal system that we’re all taught in this country — from the time we’re very young — is there to keep us safe,” Cross said.
“And if she feels … there’s no point in her engaging with it, then the system has failed. The country has failed her.”
Support is available for anyone affected by details of this case. If you require support, you can contact Ka Ni Kanichihk’s Medicine Bear Counselling, Support and Elder Services at 204-594-6500, ext. 102 or 104, (within Winnipeg) or 1-888-953-5264 (outside Winnipeg).
Support is also available via Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison unit at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.