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Aboriginal Woman’s Preserved Pelvis Shown in Court, an Indignity That ‘Can Never Be Undone’

People across Canada are outraged over the treatment Cindy Gladue received during her murder trial, which resulted in an acquittal.

A sign at the Toronto protest for justice in the Cindy Gladue case. Photo by Michael Toledano

Warning: This article contains graphic content about a woman's death.

The not-guilty verdict in a murder trial so horrific that the details of both the crime itself and the court's handling of evidence sickened even hardened professionals has prompted national outrage and renewed calls for action to address the high rate of violence against indigenous women.

The woman at the centre of this case is Cindy Gladue, a 36-year-old Cree woman and mother to three daughters. She grew up in Calling Lake, Alberta, was known as a great cook by her family and loved watching cooking shows.

In June 2011, she was working as a sex worker in Edmonton. On the night she died, she was working and her client was Bradley Barton, a 46-year-old truck driver from Mississauga, Ontario.

Barton's defense lawyer Dino Bottos said Barton had hired Gladue for the second night in a row and they were in his Edmonton hotel room. He consensually fisted her as he'd done the previous night, but this time it went fatally wrong.

An excerpt of the justice's instructions to jurors where he cautions them against relying on any of the medical experts' testimony

Barton testified to noticing her blood on his hands. He figured she'd gotten her period. He told her to clean up in the bathroom and leave—he would not be paying her. Then he fell asleep to the sound of running water. He woke the next morning and found Gladue's body in the bathtub and called 911. She'd bled to death from her vaginal wound while he slept in the next room.

Authorities later found the fatal 11-cm wound in Gladue's vaginal wall and a toxicologist was called to testify that Gladue's blood alcohol level was four times the legal driving limit.

Police also found Barton's internet history showed "disturbing pornography" with "extreme penetration and torture," according to a judge, but the findings were not presented to jurors. Though prosecutors wanted to include the porn as evidence, according to Bottos, it was deemed inadmissible to jurors because police found it after unlawfully interrogating Barton, unlawfully withholding his laptop, and obtained a search warrant with "baseless" grounds.

A jingle dancer at one of many protests across Canada calling for justice in the Cindy Gladue case. Photo by E.K. Hudson

"They were speculating, 'Oh let's check into his computer'... That's a fishing expedition," he said. "The Crown basically gave up trying because there were too many breaches of my client's Charter rights."

Crown prosecutors told a very different story. They argued Barton intended to harm Gladue: Their medical expert testified that Gladue's fatal wound was caused by a sharp object, and if the wound was inflicted during sex, the degree of force surpassed Gladue's consent. They presented evidence that Barton had cleaned up the bathroom and disposed of a towel with Gladue's blood on it. Additional information about the prosecution's case was unavailable at press time.

An excerpt of the justice's instructions to jurors on what the Crown prosecutors must have proven to them without reasonable doubt, namely Bradley Barton's intention to commit murder which is the third part of their deliberations on the charge of first degree murder.

The jury, however, ultimately agreed with Barton's defense that Galdue's death was the unintended result of consensual rough sex gone wrong and acquitted him.

Many Canadians were outraged with the decision, but there was a further disturbing aspect to the case that caused national outcry: Prosecutors successfully argued that it was necessary for clarity of their medical expert's testimony that Gladue's preserved pelvis be brought into the courtroom. The court permitted medical examiners for both prosecution and defense to point out the injuries to Gladue's vaginal wall to jurors.

"Undoubtedly, some jurors may be upset by the presence of the tissue in the courtroom. I fail to see, however, that its presence is likely to have the effect of distracting them from their duty," wrote Justice Robert Graesser in his ruling to allow Gladue's preserved pelvis to be brought into the courtroom.

A sign protesting the treatment of Cindy Gladue, both in life and in the trial following her death. Photo by Michael Toledano

"I would frankly be more worried about the photos which have already been shown to the jury." He goes on to point out that the Crown's expert, acting chief medical examiner Graeme Dowling, should be sure to address the color, pliability, and texture of the tissue.

The decision came under fire by a wide range of experts. Katherine Hensel, a Secwepemc lawyer in Toronto, was shocked at the justice's decision to permit Gladue's pelvis in the courtroom.

"I think the only reason in that weighing process that can justify bringing that—not only a part of her body, her dead body, but that part of her body—is if you don't view her as fully human," she said.

"It's just the broader societal perception of us as sub-human, as people whose dead bodies matter so little, whose dignity of our remains matter so little that it's acceptable to sever our genitals, our reproductive organs, and introduce them, preserved in fluid, into a Canadian courtroom."

Many indigenous communities hold the spiritual belief that there are "deep and everlasting spiritual consequences" for the dead person and their relatives if a person is not put to rest intact, Hensel explained.

"The damage that it's done spiritually to Cindy and her family can never be undone." Lynda Budreau-Smaganis, a Cree elder supporting Gladue's family, wasn't sure family members, who sat through the trial, were informed ahead of time about the inclusion of Gladue's pelvis.

Anger expressed online, or around a kitchen table for Toronto organizers, turned into a national day of action for Cindy Gladue. Rallies occurred in more than 20 Canadian cities on April 2 to protest the verdict and the court's use of Gladue's body during the trial. The actions demanded support for indigenous women on local and government levels and renewed calls for a public inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women.

Rates of violence against indigenous women are notably high in Canada and have been studied by national and international organizations. In fact, the RCMP are gearing up to release their second report. Violence against sex workers is also documented: Chanelle Gallant, Toronto rally organizer said Gladue is one of 300 sex workers known to have died while working in the sex trade in Canada over the past 25 years.

An excerpt of the justice's instructions to jurors on how to decide whether Cindy Galdue consented to engage in sexual activity with Bradley Barton.

Christa Big Canoe, legal advocacy director at Aboriginal Legal Services, believes racism played a role in the jury's decision particularly in a case that contemplated whether or not Gladue consented to Barton's "rough sex." Of the 11 jurors, two were women, two were people of colour, none were indigenous. ( The Supreme Court is currently hearing cases on representation of indigenous peoples on juries.)

"Indigenous women in general are over sexualized in Canadian society and there are a whole host of misconceptions and stereotypes at play that does actually change people's thoughts on whether or not she may or may not have consented," said Big Canoe.

Hensel agrees. To her, the verdict was not surprising.

"It's entirely consistent with how society treats indigenous women, especially indigenous sex workers," she said. "The criminal justice system is no more equipped than society, currently, to protect indigenous women."

Chief Crown prosecutor Michelle Doyle announced April 2 her office will be appealing Barton's acquittal. The Crown lists its grounds for appeal as the Justice Graesser's instructions to the jury regarding motive, manslaughter and consent. Read the justice's full instructions to the jury below.

Final Barton charge

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