Justice Sophie Bourque: She almost had it right!

The killing of Lin Jun – allegedly committed by Luka Magnotta – made international headlines. Today, the headlines aren’t about the act, rather they’re about a decision made by the courts to block access to data from a research study that Magnotta had participated in the past. The police tried to access the recorded interview conducted between a researcher and Magnotta, however, Justice Sophie Bourque barred access to the transcripts for use as evidence in his trial.

To date, there has been no precedence set in the courts that protects participants’ research data in the case of a murder trial.

There are tremendous ethical considerations in this case, and I will highlight some below:

As a participant, you are assured that your data will not be disclosed/used for purposes other than the study – aka researcher -participant privilege. Was it ethical – albeit a moot point – for the student to contact the police?

What’s more interesting is how Justice Bourque dealt with the collected data from the research study.

  • But after looking at the transcript of the audiotape, Justice Bourque said any usefulness would be minimal, and the harm it would cause to academic research far outweighed the benefit

The above statement is a double-edged sword. Although, the Judge’s decision to block access by the police to the data is a monumental decision that protects research participants, it is unethical of her to review the transcripts of the audiotape. There is a clear indication that her decision was influenced by the content of the transcripts… Suppose she deemed it “useful”, the police gain access to the transcripts and use it as evidence in the courts.

The Judge’s ability to review the content can have implications for future research.

Let’s consider a study that is researching behaviours of individuals who are at high risk of contracting HIV. Hypothetically, if a participant is in a similar situation such as Magnotta, based on today’s precedence, a judge may rule that a participant’s research data made available for the trial. How could this affect the decisions of potential research participants who are at high risk of contracting HIV?

One can argue that this will become a concern to potential participants and act as a barrier to quality research. Should a participant partake in a study, their answers may be skewed based on the possibility that their data – if linked back to them – can be used beyond the scope of the study. Another argument can be made that participants who make for ideal study candidates avoid participation due to fear of prosecution, therefore stifling research.

Justice Bourque’s decision to review a participant’s data collected in a research study is unethical and violates researcher-participant privileges. The potential harm to conducting sound, quality academic research outweighs the benefits of using research participants’ data as evidence in a trial.