HALIFAX — The spouse of the gunman in the Nova Scotia mass shooting will testify mid-July before a public inquiry, but she won't face direct questions from lawyers representing victims' families.
The Mass Casualty Commission said Thursday in a news release that due to Lisa Banfield's status as a "survivor of the perpetrator's violence" and "in light of information she has already provided," only the inquiry's lawyer will be asking her questions during her July 15 appearance.
The decision drew criticism from lawyers representing families, who said it was the latest example of restrictions on their ability to pose questions directly to witnesses on their clients' behalf.
Josh Bryson, a lawyer for the family of victims Peter and Joy Bond, says his clients are losing faith in the credibility of the inquiry.
"Cross-examination can make or break a witness's evidence …. You test the evidence in a meaningful and trauma-informed way," he said in an interview Thursday.
Michael Scott, a lawyer for a firm representing 14 of the families, said in an email that his clients were "deeply discouraged" by the commissioners' decision to "deny our clients a meaningful opportunity to question Lisa Banfield."
"Our clients are not confident that commission counsel will elicit all relevant evidence from Ms. Banfield," Scott wrote. "Today’s decision has significantly undermined the legitimacy of the process and our clients’ confidence in the commissioners’ independence."
Banfield, on the advice of her lawyers, had initially refused to speak under oath at the hearings into the 22 killings carried out by her spouse on April 18-19, 2020. However, she changed her position after a criminal charge laid against her for supplying ammunition to the killer was referred to restorative justice.
The inquiry has also refused to allow cross-examination of Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill and Staff Sgt. Andy O'Brien, who were the first RCMP managers overseeing the response to the shootings. That decision resulted in a boycott of some proceedings by lawyers representing some of the families.
Emily Hill, senior commission counsel, says participatinglawyers can submit their questions in advance and can provide followup questions to the inquiry's lawyer to ask during the single day set aside to hear Banfield. She noted that Banfield has provided five unsworn interviews as well as documents that the public will be able to view.
However, Bryson said the inquiry's interviews are unsworn testimony, adding that it is crucial to have an opportunity for family lawyers to test prior statements by asking questions to a witness under oath.
Banfield's evidence could provide further information about the killer’s personal history and state of mind and may also be key to the commission’s mandate to examine the role of gender-based and intimate-partner violence in the killer’s actions.
The inquiry has heard she was the last person with the gunman before he went on his rampage. The killer assaulted her and confined her in a car, but she managed to escape. She fled into the woods and hid before emerging the next morning and telling police the killer was driving a replica RCMP vehicle.
The RCMP have said from the outset that Banfield wasn’t aware of her spouse’s intentions when she provided him with ammunition before the shootings, but they proceeded with charges alleging she, her brother and her brother-in-law had illegally transferred ammunition to the killer.
During a briefing Thursday morning, the commission confirmed that senior RCMP officers, including Supt. Darren Campbell, Chief Supt. Chris Leather, assistant commissioner Lee Bergerman and Commissioner Brenda Lucki, will testify in July and August — under oath and subject to cross-examination.
Premier Tim Houston told reporters on Thursday he was aware of the decision not to permit cross-examination in Banfield's case and that he understood the families' concerns. He said he continues to believe the inquiry should put "the confidence of the families at the centre of all this."
However, he didn't directly criticize the inquiry as he had done on the first day of its proceedings.
"I remain confident that at the end of this there will be recommendations and information that Nova Scotians can rely on," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2022.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press