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B.C. judge sorry for swearing

'The language I used had no place in the courtroom,' he tells special sitting

ROD MICKLEBURGH

VANCOUVER -- A contrite B.C. Supreme Court judge made an extraordinary, emotional public apology yesterday for making a number of profanity-laced observations during a criminal trial this week.

In an admission believed to be without precedent in the annals of B.C. courts, if not those of the entire country, Mr. Justice Peter Leask called his behaviour inexcusable and vowed not to repeat it.

"The language I used had no place in the courtroom and I was wrong to use it as I did," he told a rare, specially convened sitting of the court, packed with lawyers, news media and members of the public.

With a trembling voice and a catch in his throat, Judge Leask, a veteran former defence lawyer appointed to the bench 18 months ago, said that he wished "to make an unreserved apology. . . . I deeply regret my actions."

One long-time Supreme Court judge said that he could not recall anything similar to Judge Leask's apology in such a setting. "There have been special sittings of the court before, but nothing like this."

Judge Leask aroused a storm of public controversy by twice using the f-word, plus an "oh shit" and a "goddamned," as he questioned prosecutor Ernie Froess during closing arguments in a drug-trafficking trial.

At one point, he observed that the accused, whom he eventually acquitted, would "have had to have been out of his fuckin' mind to store it in his own locker," referring to cocaine.

Later, musing about the thoughts of another individual already convicted in the case, Judge Leask said: " . . . he can minimize his risk of detection and apprehension by just aborting the whole fucking thing, right?"

Some young students were present in the courtroom during the judge's remarks.

In his apology, which he read out in a simple business suit, Judge Leask specifically included "any schoolchildren" who were in court at the time.

He also extended his regrets to other members of the public who were there, all lawyers in the province, court staff "and all members of this court, past and present, as well as the members of other courts of this province."

Among those present yesterday for the judge's apology was 10-year old Adam Veitch, brought to the court by his father. Afterwards, the youngster said that Judge Leask had done the right thing.

"I think it was, like, good that he apologized for what he said. You shouldn't swear, because there were a lot of kids there, and it can get back to you in a bad way," Adam said.

B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal welcomed Judge Leask's frank and unreserved apology. "It really tells us the kind of person he is. . . . He quite correctly realized that his language was not appropriate in the circumstances."

Both lawyers in the drug-trafficking case, however, said they had not been offended by the judge's language and did not feel it was necessary for him to apologize.

"Really, at the end of the day, I'm embarrassed," defence lawyer Neil Cobb said. "As someone who's spent 45 years defending the poor and the downtrodden, he didn't deserve this maelstrom. . . . I felt terrible hearing him say that he was sorry."

Asked whether it was appropriate for schoolchildren to hear such language in court, Mr. Cobb replied: "My son is 13 years old, and he's got more offensive language than that on half the songs on his iPod."

Mr. Froess said he had not been offended by Judge Leask's choice of words either, nor did he mind the judge's seemingly incessant interruptions of his closing argument.

"He told me the issues he was concerned about and it's my job to respond to those concerns," Mr. Froess said. "His apology was obviously heartfelt and very genuine, and I think that puts the matter to rest."

The special sitting of the court was convened by Chief Justice Donald Brenner at Judge Leask's request.

Judge Leask became particularly emotional as he expressed concerns that his conduct had damaged the reputation of the courts.

"It pains me greatly, and I am [especially] anxious that my colleagues recognize my contrition," he said.

Well-known defence lawyer Terry La Liberté, who attended the special session, said he was impressed by Judge Leask's apology, calling his profanities an aberration for someone with a previously impeccable reputation.

"Perhaps he was tired . . . but we are all human beings," Mr. La Liberté said. "We all make mistakes, and if you have the fortitude to stand up and apologize, I think the public accepts that."