The world of criminal justice recently suffered a heartbreaking setback.
It’s not the kind of setback you’ll read about on the front pages of the National Post or find in the pages of CanLii but its a loss of epic proportions nonetheless.
On June 12, 2016, Sydney “Syd” Bercovich (83) quietly passed away.
In fact, his passing was so quiet I never heard a thing about it until Winnipeg Free Press reporter Kevin Rollason was kind enough to announce the sad news on Twitter.
The 13th juror.
It was an affectionate term bestowed upon Syd by Police Officers, Lawyers, Judges and Crime Reporters who appreciated his passion for criminal justice.
We all feel his loss.
After a long and successful career with the London Life Insurance Company, Syd’s post career hobby centered on the happenings at the Criminal Law Courts at 408 York Ave where he was an almost daily fixture.
Syd specialized in attending high-profile criminal trials involving Winnipeg killers of all ilks – Bikers, Gang Bangers, members of Organized Crime, Drug Dealers, Baby Killers, Sadists, Psychopaths et al.
He witnessed criminal prosecutions involving some of the most heinous crimes imaginable; decapitation, dismemberment, disembowelment, shootings, stabbings and many other forms of human depravity.
Syd had a front row seat for all of it.
If you didn’t know it, the Law Courts are a dark place few people care to intentionally tread.
It’s a place where the dark side of humanity is exposed in all of its mind numbing starkness. A place where First Responders, Police Officers and Pathologists lay bare the graphic details experienced while performing their days work. Work that often includes performing critical medical aid to mortally wounded souls, attending emotionally disturbing crime scenes or dissecting the bodies of those bludgeoned by extraordinarily violent killers.
Syd took it all in.
When I caught the news I struggled to recall when I first met the infamous 13th juror.
I just came to expect to see him when I walked into a courtroom.
He rarely failed me.
There he’d be, sitting in the gallery, eyes front, giving a discreet nod as you picked up the bible to swear your oath.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?” the court clerk routinely asked.
“I do so swear,” the standard reply.
The game was on.
Syd loved the game.
I can’t tell you how many times Syd met me in the hallway of the Law Courts during recess, lunch breaks or at the end of trials.
His message was always the same.
Respect, reinforcement and appreciation for a doing a tough job.
The Court Room Battles
Few people experience the inherent stress involved in providing testimony in a high-profile murder case. The stakes are high, make one mistake and a killer might walk free.
The hopes and prayers of surviving family members destroyed.
Any chance at some sense of justice can be gone in a flash.
That kind of failure isn’t easy to live with.
It’s an adversarial system.
Skilled defence attorney’s hang on your every word, waiting, anticipating, ready to pounce on any perceived contradiction in your testimony. They load questions, challenge you, set traps and try to take you down the path.
It’s their job.
Most police officers respect that.
Syd respected that.
He especially loved it when things got “testy” and things often got “testy” when I was on the witness stand.
There sat Syd.
A reassuring face in the courtroom when the heat was on.
His presence had a calming influence.
I appreciated that.
I also appreciated the letter he wrote to the Winnipeg Police Service when I received a less than cordial transfer out of my beloved Homicide Unit;
“As a follower of the courts for many years, I have followed many murder cases where James Jewell has been involved and in my opinion the Homicide Division needs him back where he belongs,” Syd wrote.
“The Winnipeg Police Service needs more Officers of his calibre, sincerely Sydney (Syd) Bercovich, Winnipeg.”
That letter told me much about Syd.
He wasn’t just a guy who sat in a courtroom watching the soup of the day.
He was someone who cared about people.
He was a man of passion, integrity and honour.
He was a friend.
A friend who will be missed.