A not guilty verdict in the death of 36-year-old First Nations woman Cindy Gladue is stirring widespread anger in Canada; Bradley Barton, a long-haul trucker from Ontario, was acquitted last week on charges related to her 2011 death. The jury evidently bought the argument that Gladue, a sex worker, died from wounds sustained during what the defense described as "consensual manual stimulation."
We will note here that the details of Gladue's death and her trial are especially gruesome. Gladue died in June of 2011 in a motel room in Edmonton. Barton and Gladue met up twice at the Yellowhead Inn for sex. Barton told police that after the second night, he woke up to find the bathroom covered in blood and Gladue dead in the bathtub. Gladue was found to have bled to death from a large wound in her vaginal wall. She also had a blood-alcohol content four times the legal limit.
The prosecution argued that the vaginal wound, which was 11 centimeters
in diameter long, was caused by Barton deliberately stabbing her with a knife, and that the amount of alcohol in her system meant she was legally unable to consent to sexual activity. The defense said the wound was caused by Barton's hand during consensual sex. Barton's attorney pointed out that he called 911 the next morning and hadn't left the scene. The medical examiner for Alberta brought Gladue's preserved vagina into the courtroom to show the jury, arguing it was necessary to understand the nature of the injury. It's the first time bodily remains have been displayed as evidence in a Canadian courtroom.
No knife was found in the room; a prosecutor said Barton had time to throw it away, and noted that he had disposed of a bloody towel that morning. Barton also initially told a 911 operator that Gladue had knocked on his door "to take a shower," and told a police officer responding to the scene that he was "a married man," adding, "I don't do that kind of stuff." The jury was also not told that pornography depicting torture was found on Barton's laptop, including foreign objects being put into women's vaginas. The prosecution and defense agreed the laptop wasn't admissible, seemingly because it wasn't obtained correctly.
The jury of nine men and two women found Barton not guilty, setting off a pained and outraged reaction. Dr. Sarah Hunt, a First Nations anti-violence activist, wrote in an editorial that the jury's decision clearly hinged on the fact that Gladue was indigenous and a sex worker. She also expressed outrage that Gladue's remains were brought into the courtroom (the jury was shown images on a screen, which was not visible to the gallery):
Her preserved pelvis was brought into court. On a screen, the wound to her vagina was displayed as proof of her dehumanized status. Is there any reason the jury needed anything more than hard copy photos of the wound? Indigenous peoples bodies have been treated as specimens for centuries, though usually not in murder trials these days.
This treatment of Ms. Gladue demonstrates just how a 36-year old mother can be imagined as different from the jurors' own mothers, and how the stigma of her work in the sex trade, her indigeneity and her womanhood all combined to naturalize her death as routine by jury. It was well established that Ms. Gladue met Mr. Barton in the context of her work in the sex trade. She met with him twice and camera evidence was presented showing the two of them entering the hotel room where she later died.
Mr. Barton said her death was due to consensual rough sex – even though in our view she could not give consent since her blood alcohol level was four times the legal limit. He admitted to his actions, but he said he didn't mean it. The jury has sent a message that killing an indigenous woman is acceptable. How many more deaths will it take before the system is compelled to change?
The verdict has touched off a series of rallies and calls for the prosecution to appeal the decision. An online petition reads, in part, "Cindy was a gift from the creator and she deserves Justice." Another series of rallies are planned for April 2 in several cities.
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