25 Years Since Paul Bernardo Was Found Guilty

On September 1, 1995, one of Canada’s most notorious killers was found guilty following a sensational  trial.  Paul Bernardo was convicted in the murders of 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy and 15-year-old Kristen French. He was sentenced to life in prison and declared a dangerous offender which means he can be kept behind bars indefinitely. 

Tammy Homolka Leslie Mahaffy Kristen French

The verdicts came following a four month trial that gripped the Canadian public with its graphic evidence which included videotapes that Bernardo made of him and his wife Karla Homolka sexually assaulting the teenagers.

The jury also heard that Bernardo and Homolka drugged and sexually assaulted Homolka’s younger sister Tammy.  During the assault, which was also video taped, the unconscious 15-year-old vomited and choked to death.

The trial was such a huge media sensation that people lined up overnight to get a seat inside the courtroom to hear key testimony from witnesses including Homolka who testified against her husband. 

Paul Bernardo trial

Homolka told the court that she only participated in the assaults because she was afraid of Bernardo who she claimed had emotionally and physically assaulted her for years.   Before Bernardo’s trial Homolka pleaded guilty to manslaughter and in a controversial agreement with the crown received 12 years in prison in exchange for her testimony. 

Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka

When Bernardo took the stand, he admitted that he kidnapped and sexually assaulted Mahaffy and French, but he maintained that he did not kill them.  Bernardo said in both cases he wasn’t in the room when the teenagers died.  His lawyer John Rosen suggested that Homolka may have killed Leslie out of jealousy and that Kristen may have accidently strangled herself when struggling to escape.

In the end the jury did not believe Bernardo and found him guilty after less than 9 hours of deliberations.

Following the trial Bernardo was scheduled to face more than 60 charges in connection with a string of violent rapes in Scarborough, Ontario between 1987 and 1990 but in a surprising move Bernardo pleaded guilty to 13 sexual assaults and agreed to be designated a Dangerous Offender.

10 years after Bernardo was sent to Kingston Penitentiary to serve his sentence, he admitted to 17 more sexual assaults.  Police also questioned Bernardo about the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Bain but he denied involvement.

The Pink clapboard house in St. Catharines, Ontario where Leslie and Kristen were brutally assaulted and eventually killed was torn down three months after the verdicts. About 50 people volunteered to be part of the demo team and over 100 people, including Leslie’s mom Debbie Mahaffy gathered at dawn to watch as the house of horrors was torn down.

Paul Bernardo house

In December 2001, the videotaped evidence was incinerated as the families of the girls watched. Mrs.  Mahaffy said she was extremely relieved because she felt her daughter would never find eternal peace until the tapes were destroyed.  Kristen’s mom, Donna French agreed saying that this was one of the last things she could do for her daughter and hoped she could now rest in peace.

After serving 25 years in prison, Bernardo applied and was denied parole in the fall of 2018. He is eligible to apply again every two years until he dies. Homolka was released from prison after serving her sentence. She lives under a new name and is now married with three children.

For more stories from the 1990s, make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at Curiouscast.ca.

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