MONTREAL – They make up the tiny segment of the population that has heard the disturbing evidence at the high-profile case of alleged killer Luka Rocco Magnotta.
Unlike lawyers, court officials and journalists, however,these curious court-watchers didn’t get paid to observe the testimony at Magnotta’s ongoing preliminary hearing in Montreal.
They chose to be there.
None of the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing, which has attracted international media attention, can be published because of a court-ordered ban.
So, the only way for the public to know what’s going on is to show up.
And that’s exactly what a few university students, a restless retiree and at least one admirer of the accused have decided to do.
“You can either sit at home and stew in the fact that there’s a publication ban or you can come here and sit in the courtroom,” said recently retired Lucy Adams, who tries to arrive at the courthouse two hours before the 9:30 a.m. daily start time in order to snap up a seat.
“It’s almost like watching theatre. You don’t have to do anything about what you observe. You enjoy what you see. Not that this is theatre or fiction or anything — not by a long shot.”
Magnotta, 30, faces several criminal charges, including first-degree murder, in the gruesome slaying and dismemberment last year of 33-year-old university student Jun Lin.
Testimony at the hearing has already brought Lin’s father, Darin Lin, to tears and forced him to rush out of the courtroom. Magnotta also collapsed in the prisoner’s box this week, after watching video evidence, and he has appeared to wipe a tear at times.
So far, Adams said she hasn’t found the evidence difficult to take in.
The former health-care professional, who spent most of her 40-year career in the field of psychiatry, has put the goal to attend high-profile homicide cases like Magnotta’s on her “bucket list.”
She said she has been studying the body language of Magnotta, who sits behind a wall of glass only a few metres from the front row of the gallery.
“I like entertainment combined with education — it’s a good mix,” said Adams, as she nibbled on dates while standing in the lineup, waiting for her turn to pass through a metal detector outside the courtroom.
“It’s too rarely accessible for somebody like me.”
Accessibility to the hearing was a big drawing point.
“I just want to be here because I can,” said an 18-year-old Concordia University biology student, who declined to give his name because he didn’t want people to know he was at the Magnotta hearing.
He explained that he recently moved here from a Middle Eastern country where the public does not have free access to court proceedings.
The man was in the courtroom the day Magnotta fell to the ground in the fetal position, shortly after video evidence was shown on the chamber’s numerous screens.
The teen, who didn’t understand all the testimony because he doesn’t speak French, appeared unfazed by the evidence and planned to come back another day.
“This is an exciting case,” he said.
Magnotta’s hearing also attracted at least one fan.
A 22-year-old man, who called himself Kyle, said he drove 1,400 kilometres from Raleigh, N.C., to Montreal to show his support for Magnotta and the defence team.
“I’m not against the victim’s family or anything like that,” he said, noting he thought Magnotta looked “very attractive” in person.
“I hope that people realize that as hard as this is on the victim’s family… this is also terribly hard on Luka Magnotta and his family.
“It’s probably the hardest time of his life right now.”
Kyle was proud to declare that he made eye contact with Magnotta several times in the courtroom. He also displays his obsession with Magnotta in a blog, which features flattering photos of him.
During his stay in Montreal, Kyle visited sites relevant to the case. He even posted a photo from Lin’s gravesite.
Kyle said courthouse criminologists requested a private meeting with him after they saw interviews with him in some news stories.
“They just wanted to, I guess, hear first-hand from me about my reasons for being here and just to make sure that my intentions were pure — (that) I didn’t have any ulterior motives or anything,” he said.
He said other supporters of the accused have also attended the hearing.
They are among members of the public who have lined up in hope of claiming one of about a dozen seats set aside for them in the high-security chamber, behind an airport-style checkpoint.
The lineups have shrunk as the intense media interest waned after the first few days. On a couple of days this week, one or two public chairs even remained empty in the courtroom.
Meanwhile, a 50-seat public overflow room shows the hearing on a large projector screen. It has had dozens of spectators on some days and been nearly empty on others.
The case has remained an educational opportunity for some — particularly for people studying criminology, journalism and medicine.
Medical students attended proceedings this week to observe how a forensic pathologist, toxicologist and odontologist presented their reports to the courtroom. They also watched how the experts handled themselves during questioning.
A criminology undergraduate from Universite de Montreal, meanwhile, said her professor suggested students in the class try to attend at least one day of Magnotta’s hearing.
Second-year student Claudia Simeone admitted she was a bit nervous. One of her classmates dropped in last week and told her it was difficult to hear some of the evidence.
“It’s my first time (attending a court hearing)… and this is a big case,” Simeone said a few minutes before people were ushered into the courtroom.
The preliminary hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence to send Magnotta to trial. It has begun a break, starting Friday, and will resume April 8.