Lac-Megantic: jury selection process begins

SHERBROOKE, Que. — Lawyers began the difficult task Monday of finding 14 jurors who are bilingual, impartial and without any personal connection to the 2013 rail disaster that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Que.

Between 800 and 1,200 prospective jurors will be called over the next few weeks for possible selection at the trial of three men who each face one charge of criminal negligence causing the death of 47 people.

Roughly half of those who appeared in court Monday were deemed to have a sufficient knowledge of both English and French.

The process will continue and those considered bilingual will return to court Sept. 29 for the official selection of the 14-member jury.

“I find things are going well with the bilingualism selection,” Superior Court Justice Gaetan Dumas said at the end of the first day of proceedings. “Sometimes we get fewer bilingual people than we did today.”

The three ex-railway employees who are on trial — train driver Thomas Harding, traffic controller Richard Labrie and manager of train operations Jean Demaitre — were present in the Sherbrooke courtroom.

They are accused of being responsible for what happened on July 6, 2013, when a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed in the Quebec community east of Montreal and exploded.

All three have pleaded not guilty.

Charles Shearson, one of Harding’s three defence lawyers, said bilingualism is important because his client is English-speaking and the trial will include complex and technical concepts related to the railway industry.

He added that finding people in Sherbrooke who are impartial and without ties to the victims is a challenge.

“Lac-Megantic is close to (Sherbrooke) so you may have people who are related to victims,” he said.

Shearson said the defence will argue their client’s actions were not criminal.

“Our contention is that there was a lack of security culture within this railway company and you can’t strictly judge the actions of an employee who was on the front line and not given the correct tools to apply a proper safety culture,” he said.

The Crown has signalled it will call 24 civilian and 11 police witnesses, and one expert witness in a trial that is expected to last until December.

Some people asked Monday to be exempted from serving on the jury because of personal connections with victims.

Two prospective jurors broke down in tears as they told Dumas of their ties to those who died in the explosion, which destroyed a large part of the town’s core.

Others cited school, work, loss of income and health concerns as reasons for not being able to sit as jurors.

The bankrupt former railway company Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway has also pleaded not guilty to causing the deaths of 47 people and will face a separate trial at a later date.

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