(Trevor Crawley/Cranbrook Townsman)

UPDATED: Winston Blackmore and James Oler found guilty in B.C.’s landmark polygamy trial

The two church leaders were accused of having multiple wives.

Winston Blackmore and James Oler were found guilty of practicing polygamy in Cranbrook Supreme Court on Monday, in a ruling from Justice Sheri Donegan.

The two men, who are associated with the polygamous community of Bountiful near Creston in the southeastern corner of BC, have not yet been convicted as the legal proceedings move to constitutional arguments initiated by Blackmore’s lawyer, Blair Suffredine.

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Blackmore and Oler each faced one count of polygamy after charges were approved by special prosecutor Peter Wilson in 2014. Blackmore’s indictment included practicing polygamy with 24 women, while Oler was charged with practicing polygamy with four women, however, one addition was made during the course of the trial, bringing the total to five women.

Lawyers will reconvene by telephone on Aug. 21 to arrange a date to make the constitutional arguments.

Dan McLaughlin, communications counsel for the Criminal Justice Branch, said the verdicts are a result of the crown proving it’s case against Blackmore and Oler beyond a reasonable doubt.

“The court has not, however, entered convictions at this stage,” McLaughlin said. “This is simply one more step in what has been a fairly involved criminal process.”

It’s up to Suffredine and Oler to decide how to argue their respective cases moving forward. Suffredine indicated he wished to make Charter arguments, while Oler indicated he wishes to make common-law submissions.

“It’s our understanding that there are essentially two broad areas of challenge,” said McLaughlin, ”and I don’t profess to speak on behalf of either counsel for Mr. Blackmore or Mr. Oler, but there will be a constitutional aspect to it, or a charter challenge, along with a common law challenge.

“It’s difficult to characterize them. They’re not in the nature of an appeal at this stage, they deal with evidentiary elements that arose during the course of the trial.”

The polygamy charges stem from the polygamous activities of Bountiful, which is associated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway group from the mainstream Latter Day Saints church that practice plural marriages as a way to obtain the highest order of celestial glory.

Donegan’s guilty rulings came after her analysis of evidence submitted by Wilson, who relied on testimony from Jane Blackmore, Winston’s first legal wife who divorced her former husband and left the community in 2003. Other evidence included marriage records seized by Texas law enforcement during a raid on an FLDS compound in 2008, while statements Blackmore and Oler made to authorities in separate police investigations were also admitted.

Outside court, Blackmore said he was never willing to deny his religious beliefs no matter the outcome.

“I would’ve been hugely disappointed if I would’ve been found not guilty of living my religion,” said Blackmore. “I am living my religion, it is a part of my faith, it is something that is hugely important to me and my family and my father and his father, going back and hopefully going forward generations.”

Blackmore associated his arguments in support of polygamy in the same vein as the struggle for legal protection for same sex marriage.

“Twenty-seven years ago, adultery was a criminal act,” Blackmore said. “Twenty-seven years ago, when this started with us, same sex marriage was criminal. Twenty-seven years ago, swinging and swapping places were criminal activities, so all those people successfully launched constitutional challenge to freely associate with whomever they choose and they were successful in that I applaud them. I support that.”

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Blackmore has been involved in police investigations relating to polygamy since the early 1990s. He was able to avoid prosecution in the past, having polygamy charges thrown out after allegations that the BC government went ‘special prosecutor-shopping’ to find a lawyer willing to approve the charge.

After a polygamy charge was thrown out of court in 2009, the issue went to a constitutional reference case, which studied the polygamy under Section 293 of the Canadian Criminal Code to settle whether pursuing a polygamy charge infringed on the right to religious freedom.

The final judgement from the constitutional reference case, delivered in 2011, ruled that the harms associated with polygamy outweigh the right to religious freedom — a decision that paved the way for the current prosecution.

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