Culture clash over Canada killings

THE case alone is gruesome enough. But the pending murder trial of Paul Teale has acquired even greater notoriety - a cross-border culture clash where Canadian customs have seized US newspapers and which pits one country's insistence on freedom of the press against another's belief that a defendant's right to a fair trial must have absolute priority.

Mr Teale, from St Catharines, near Niagara Falls, is accused of kidnapping, sexually abusing and killing two teenage girls in 1991. But he will not be tried until next year at the earliest and until then courts are barring publication of all but the barest details of the case. The ban was imposed by Justice Francis Kovacs of Ontario, just before the trial of Mr Teale's estranged wife, Karla Homolka, last July, when she was convicted of manslaughter in the two deaths and jailed for 12 years.

The public and foreign news media were barred from the court; even Canadian journalists were permitted to report only the verdict and sentencing and to discuss the case not even with friends, but only with their editors.

Although Canadian media are still appealing against the ban, the news black-out has more or less held. Until the last few days, no detail has seeped out of the 25-minute agreeed statement of facts read out at the Homolka proceedings, which the Toronto Globe and Mail, the country's leading paper, called the next day a 'catalogue of depravity and death'.

Reporters and police officers were said to have been in tears at what they heard about the killing of the girls, and how Homolka drugged her own 14- year-old sister for her own and Mr Teale's sexual enjoyment, preserving the scenes on video. Nor are Canadians supposed to know that Homolka received so light a sentence thanks to a plea bargain, under which she agreed to testify against her husband.

Now, however, the dam of secrecy is starting to crumble. For weeks, computer bulletin boards and data networks have spread word. Foreign papers containing greater detail are as prized as samizdats in the old Soviet Union.

An earlier comparison might be with the affair between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson and the abdication crisis, known around the world but kept from the public in Britain. But then there was no global information village.

Last week the Washington Post published the fullest version so far, pieced together from anonymous sources who had witnessed Homolka's court appearance. The account, describing how one of the teenage victims was kept alive for 13 days before being murdered, was published in the local paper from Buffalo, on the US side of the border.

At the weekend the Niagara regional police seized 187 copies of the edition at the frontier crossing. Sixty-one drivers were arrested or spoken to before being allowed to continue into Canada. More seriously, two Buffalo television stations which are easily received in Canada on Tuesday breached the ban, broadcasting proscribed information for the first time.

In the US a similar news black-out for a criminal case, where national security interests are not involved, is inconceivable. For better or worse, celebrity trials involving the likes of William Kennedy Smith, Mike Tyson, or (as currently) the Menendez brothers in California, are given the full media treatment, regardless of whether prior publicity has reduced a defendant's chances of a fair trial.