Lead prosecutor in Pickton murder trial dies of COVID-19 complications

The man who led the prosecution of Canada’s most notorious serial killer is being remembered as a friend, a mentor and one of the the province’s sharpest legal minds.

Mike Petrie passed away on Jan. 5 of COVID-19-linked pneumonia, weeks before his 67th birthday.

A few days later, his family said they received a letter from his care home telling them he was on the wait list for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Petrie fought many legal battles in his 34-year career, but none loomed larger than the trial that led to the 2007 conviction of Robert “Willy” Pickton on six counts of second-degree murder for the slaying of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

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“He was the largest mass murderer in Canadian history, so you can imagine the pressure there was on Mike and the Crown team when they put that case together, and ultimately of course it resulted in convictions,” said Wally Oppal, who served as Attorney General at the time.

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Petrie studied law at the University of British Columbia, and signed on as a Crown prosecutor in 1979, in the East Kootenay district.

In 1988 he transferred to Fraser region, where he focused on major criminal prosecutions, and was appointed as Queen’s Counsel in 2006.

Colleagues remember Petrie as a “people person,” one who always had time for victims, families and others in the legal community.

His skill at communicating allowed him to explain complex legal concepts to juries in plain language, while making him a feared cross-examiner.

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“He could get people to say things that simply nobody else could,” said Andrew MacDonald, regional Crown counsel for the Fraser region.

“I equate this to being able to pick another’s pocket while the victim is watching you do it, and Mike did it time after time after time.”

Crown prosecutor Wendy Stephen described Petrie as brilliant, tough, fair and a mentor to many up and coming lawyers.

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“He could also talk to anybody about anything, any time, and he communicated in particular with juries,” she said.

“He was a man of the people. He would talk to the jury as if he was talking to a neighbour over the back fence.”

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Stephen said there was no question the high-profile and, at times, gruesome trial took a toll on Petrie.

But she said his sense of positivity and optimism allowed him to find good in the ordeal, seeing himself as someone who could help the victims and families get through the darkest time in their lives.

MacDonald recalled seeing Petrie after he won a crucial hearing on the admissibility of evidence in the case.

“The look of relief on Mike’s face was palpable,” he said.

“The stress that I saw leaving his face that day, of the successful application, was just one of many, many journeys he went through in that case. And he suffered tremendously for it.”

Pickton was eventually sentenced to six concurrent life sentences in the killings, with no eligibility for parole for 25 years.

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MacDonald said that victory was built not only on Petrie’s keen legal abilities, but his skill as a leader who assembled an effective team that looked up to him.

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Years later, Macdonald said, Oppal referred to Petrie as “one of my guys,” a simple acknowledgement that brought great pride to the prosecutor who would tell the story often.

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Despite the emotional toll of the trial, MacDonald said, “if he had been asked to do it again, the answer clearly would have been yes.”

Petrie is also remembered for his love of music.

A skilled guitar player, he would regale colleagues with detailed knowledge of obscure musicians and their place in music history, MacDonald said.

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The two shared many nights in each others homes singing and playing, he said.

Petrie leaves behind a legacy of the successful prosecution of one of Canada’s most infamous criminals, and of influence on a generation of young colleagues.

He also leaves behind two families, one of blood — including five children — and one of the law.

His family says no formal service is currently planned.

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