WINNIPEG — A man accused of killing four women, two of whose remains are believed to be in a Winnipeg-area landfill, maintained his innocence on the first day of a pretrial hearing.
Jeremy Skibicki appeared in court Monday and pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the deaths of First Nations women Rebecca Contois, Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran and an unidentified woman who Indigenous leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe or Buffalo Woman.
Family members and supporters, many wearing shirts displaying images of Contois, Harris and Myran, filled the large courtroom. Some gasped as Skibicki entered his pleas.
First Nations ceremonies were recognized by the court before the start of the hearing. The courtroom was smudged and blessed with prayer and song.
Four large cloths — black, red, yellow and white — were hung on the walls of the courtroom to represent the four directions. A buffalo headdress was also placed on a table with an eagle feather fan.
A red, ribbon dress was laid out on a chair to represent Buffalo Woman.
Aimee Fortier, a spokesperson for Manitoba Courts, said in an email that the courts will always ensure that its neutral regarding religion and spirituality, but there are attempts being made to address issues of reconciliation and trust with Indigenous communities.
"The accommodations and gestures identified by the Crown, and agreed to by all counsel, represent an approach by which neutrality can be preserved and, at the same time, Indigenous knowledge, practice and tradition can be incorporated," Fortier said.
Police have said they believe the four women were killed over two months in the spring of 2022, although only the body of Contois has been found.
Her partial remains were discovered last year in a garbage bin in the city and in the Brady Road landfill.
Police believe the remains of Harris and Myran are in the Prairie Green Landfill north of Winnipeg. Their families have spent nearly a year calling for a search of the landfill after police declined to search the area, citing safety concerns.
A trail for Skibicki has been scheduled to start at the end of April.
His lawyers argued Monday that he should have a judge-alone trial.
"An accused should have an unfettered right to elect the mode of trial that they want," Leonard Tailleur told reporters Monday outside court.
Tailleur also took issue with the Crown issuing a direct indictment in the case, forgoing a preliminary hearing.
"The next thing they want also is determining the mode of trial ... at some point, you're going to say stop to this," he said.
The Crown is contesting the defence's motion to have a judge-alone trial.
There is "very high public interest to have a trial by judge and jury" in this case, said Charles Murray, a lawyer with Manitoba Justice's constitutional law branch.
Court of King's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal reserved his decision for a later date. The rest of the two-week hearing is under a publication ban.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2023.
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press