As the Laura Babcock pre-trial proceedings and the trial itself progressed, a strange, almost paternalistic, dynamic developed between Dellen Millard and the judge, Michael Code, who has a reputation for being a stern taskmaster who does not tolerate fools gladly. This excerpt from the newly released paperback version of Dark Ambition looks at the relationship
Watching the interactions between the judge and Dellen Millard, who was defending himself, it was hard not to wonder if this was the first time Millard had ever had boundaries imposed by a parental figure. Code not only had to rule on the many legal matters raised by Millard, he also had to deal with the defendant’s various problems at the jail. Early on, Millard asked the judge to intervene to ensure that he had access to disclosure of the evidence against him and could prepare properly for motions and trial. Later, he complained that corrections officials wouldn’t allow him to transport hair gel and a comb to the courthouse. As the trial itself got underway, Millard reported that the prison transport van was often late, impeding his trial preparation. On one occasion, he claimed that a lockdown at the jail had left him unable to shower.
Code responded that he showered and shaved in five minutes so he was sure Millard could accomplish that too. He also warned Millard about exaggerating the delays in wagon waits, telling him he had heard from court security that Millard had finished court at 5 p.m. and been in a transport van at 5:40. Later, when officials decided it would make their lives easier to transport Millard in a squad car for the duration of the trial, Code drily congratulated him on acquiring chauffeur service.
Regarding legal matters, the judge urged Millard to focus on his cross-examinations, to get to the point with witnesses, and to stop wasting time on useless motions. When Millard tried to re-open the cross-examination of Shawn Lerner during the first week of trial, Code told him sharply, “Your application’s dismissed, Mr. Millard. It’s got no merit. You’re making very bad decisions about where your priorities are lying.” Not long after, however, he complimented Millard on his cross-examinations, describing some of them as “quite able.”
Millard’s technique did indeed improve after his shocking opening cross-examination of Clayton Babcock, who was clearly uncomfortable being questioned by Jill Cameron about his daughter’s mental health. Clayton said he knew Laura had been seeing a psychiatrist and behaving erratically, but that he also believed she might have been dramatizing the severity of her situation. He was far more at ease in the witness box while talking about happier times, such as when Laura beat the entire family at video games, when father and daughter listened to the Sex Pistols and David Bowie together, and when Laura talked him into watching “Say Yes to the Dress” on TV. “Even to the end, when she wasn’t quite herself, we would talk. She would never be gone any length of time,” he said, explaining that panic didn’t set in until after Laura had been gone for a week.
It took only a few minutes, however, before one of Millard’s questions landed him in trouble with Justice Code. When he asked Clayton Babcock why he was in the witness box and not Laura’s mother, Linda—hinting that it was likely related to Linda’s decision to change the locks at their house and limit Laura’s access to her home—Code reminded Millard brusquely that the Crown gets to choose its witnesses. Millard then proceeded to ramble from topic to topic, asking about the nature of the relationship between Clayton and his daughter, how many times she had been hospitalized for mental-health issues, and whether her personality changed during 2012.
His questions seemed intent on demonstrating that Babcock was not an attentive father, which caused the atmosphere in the courtroom to become increasingly tense. But Millard, apparently oblivious to the negative effect he was having, didn’t let up. He asked if Clayton had ever hit or abused Laura, to which the witness replied no, that he rarely raised his voice. Millard wondered aloud whether Laura had ever told her father that she had started using the surname Ryan instead of Babcock, because of her difficult relationship with him. No, untrue, he answered. “She wanted to get into the movie business. She thought Ryan, which was her mother’s maiden name, sounded prettier.”
It was unclear whether Millard was trying to humiliate Babcock or thought, mistakenly, that he was doing what tough defence lawyers do. Near the end of his testimony, when Babcock failed to recall certain dates, Millard patronizingly told him, “You’ve actually done very well.” It was a comment that caused spectators in the courtroom to look at each other in disbelief. Opening day of Dellen Millard’s murder trial was proving the adage that a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.
As the trial progressed, however, Millard’s skills as a lawyer improved. He made Jeff W., the film producer who had invited Laura to stay at his place, look suspicious by suggesting that he was lying when he said he hadn’t had sex with Laura. In questioning the confused and hapless Brad D., who had been the source of the rumour that Laura had been spotted in Yorkville days after her disappearance, Millard effectively tripped him up. And from the bank witness who explained Laura’s various accounts, Millard elicited the information that Babcock had stopped using her credit card several days before she went missing. Not only did he earn occasional praise from the judge, he also received backhanded compliments from the press. “He may not wear the robes—a charcoal jacket and jeans will have to suffice—but he’s certainly assumed all the mannerisms and posturing of a lawyer,” wrote Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno during the second week of trial.
You can buy the paperback edition of Dark Ambition in your local bookstore or at Amazon, which also has the Kindle version