The Assembly of The

Church of the Universe

 


Daniel D.A. Ventresca, LL.B,
before Judge Scime, 1995
Ontario Court of Justice
(General Division) at Hamilton.

Counsel to the Damned   
Canadian Lawyer Magazine - September 1996
By Kevin Marron, Correspondent  

 

"When you're the lawyer for  religious group which believes marijuana is a sacrament, its members can be difficult'
clients ..."
Daniel D.A. Ventresca, LL.B.


Note: Mr. Ventresca was Reverend Baldasaro's Court Appointed Duty Counsel and Advisor during this Jury Trial for Trafficking Marijuana. Reverend Tucker was Reverend Baldasaro's Official Church Counsel and Both Reverends made their own submissions in the proceedings. On occasion, Reverend Tucker was ordered out of the Court-room  for refusing to remove his Holy Hat and Reverend Baldasaro was also charged with contempt of court by a Judge  Crane for refusing to remove his, which was later withdrawn after being found guilty of Trafficking Church Sacrament.


WHEN THE DEFENDANT appeared in court wearing his underpants on his head, the duty counsel tried to remain calm. Daniel Ventresca had witnessed so many bizarre courtroom antics that he was not easily shocked. What he was really worried about, however, was what his client might do next. 

A thick skin and a tolerance for eccentricity were the qualities that enabled Daniel Ventresca to act as legal advisor to a series of extremely difficult clients whom no other lawyer would represent, even with legal aid certificates. This unusual clientele had earned Ventresca a reputation in the Hamilton, Ontario Courts where he practiced, as one fellow lawyer put it, as "counsel to the damned".  Now he was in bail court as counsel to the Reverend Brother Michael J. Baldasaro, a bishop of the Church of the Universe, accused of trafficking in the sacrament of his faith - to wit, marijuana. Brother Michael was in custody and this was Ventresca's tenth attempt to get him a bail hearing. The problem was that Brother Michael refused to appear in court without covering his head, preferably with a hat made of hemp. 

A parade of lawyers declined to represent Brother Michael, until Ventresca came on the scene, and a series of justices of the peace refused to hear the case, unless the defendant took off his hat. Many local lawyers attended these brief hearings for their entertainment value, ever curious about what the defendant would say and how mad the JP would get. Judges in higher courts were prepared to overlook the matter of correct attire, but the Hamilton JPs apparently saw this as an important issue and a stumbling block to any further proceedings. Eventually someone stole Brother Michael's hat, perhaps in the hope that this would expedite matters. But Brother Michael was ready to improvise. 

The 47 - year old Brother Michael cut an imposing figure with his long hair and massive bushy beard. He was somehow able to maintain his dignity with underwear on his head, just as he could marshal seemingly logical arguments to support legal positions so far out in left field as to be out of sight in the eyes of the law. 

He was supported in court by other members of the Church of the Universe, including its founder Walter Tucker, 64, the son of a Saskatchewan Queen's Bench justice. Not content only with founding a church, Brother Walter also established a seminary for the missionaries of the sacred weed, the University of the Universe, with its own law faculty to assist members in defending themselves in court. 

On previous occasions, the members of the Church of the Universe had appeared in court without any clothes on, covered only by blankets, in order to protest what they saw as a denial of their rights. Now, Ventresca was terrified that Brother Michael would go much further than the justice of the peace intended, when asked to remove the article of clothing that he was wearing on his head. To the lawyer's relief, but also to his embarrassment, the defendant chose, instead, to complain that he was being unfairly singled out in being denied the right to wear religious headgear, since Ventresca, whom Brother Michael would refer to as "Brother Daniel," was allowed to wear a yarmulke in court. 

"It's funny now, but at the time it was a nightmare," says Ventresca, "It was a low point in Canadian justice and it didn't help that everyone was pointing at me in my yarmulke." 

A large man with a gentle manner, Ventresca is not easily ruffled. Before he became a lawyer, he worked for 14 years in professional theater, as a stage manager, lighting designer and bit-part actor, once playing a gravedigger in Hamlet. This experience prepared him well for his role in the courtroom comedies that the Church of the Universe trials inevitably became. 

It was, in fact, a piece of stage management that broke the impasse over Brother Michael's hat. As Ventresca puts it, "We had to get a JP in from Brantford who everyone knew couldn't give a rat's ass about a hat". 

Most lawyers have war stories about eccentric or difficult clients, but the problems that the Church of the Universe members pose to the courts are a different order of magnitude. These are people who openly flout the Narcotics Control Act and delight in the opportunity to challenge it in court. They base these challenges on their claim that marijuana is a sacrament in their church, often using arcane and convoluted arguments drawn from British Common Law, the Magna Carta and the law of sanctuary. 

When they represent themselves in court, they can very quickly turn a trial into a circus. For example, Brother Walter and his brother William Tucker once subpoenaed 23 police commissioners, as defence witnesses at a trial in which they were accused of obstructing police by getting in the way at the scene of a motor vehicle accident. 

What should have been a straightforward two hour trial continued for several days. The judge soon realized that he had made a big mistake in allowing Brother William to represent Brother Walter and vice versa. When Brother Walter took the witness stand, he insisted that he should be allowed to cross-examine himself on behalf of his brother. Speaking slowly and carefully, the judge told the brothers, "There is no problem. Nobody's got mad. You don't annoy me. It is perfect." 

When faced with more serious charges, such as possession of sacrament and its distribution to their flock, some members of the Church of the Universe felt that they needed a lawyer to protect their interests in court. The problem was to find a lawyer who would be prepared to handle an unbelievably time-consuming and potentially embarrassing case. 

As duty counsel, Ventresca was able to bill the legal aid plan for the time he spent on the case, rather than receive a set fee. This was an important consideration in cases that could be derailed or interminably delayed by something as trivial as the defendant's attire. This role also gave the lawyer the freedom to ignore the defendant's instructions when they seemed contrary to logic, decorum or accepted jurisprudence. "I'd cringe at the thought of being solicitor of record," he explains, "When a client is insisting that you make arguments that won't work or are not valid in law, adopt tactics that are not according to criminal procedure, the solicitor is placed in an impossible position." 

It was such a dilemma that forced another Hamilton lawyer Kim Edward to have herself removed from the record in a trial at which she represented Sister Jo-Anne Tucker. Brother Walter and Sister Jo-Anne had been jointly charged with possession of narcotics for the purposes of trafficking following a police raid on church premises in which some marijuana, magic mushrooms and about $14,000 in cash were seized. The Tuckers complained that the police had invaded the sanctuary of their church, desecrated their sacrament and stolen money collected from their congregation for church purposes. 


Left to Right - Reverends Baldasaro, Tucker and Tucker 
before Judge Scime, 1995, Ontario Court. (General Division), Hamilton

When legal questions were raised about the validity of the search warrant, the Tuckers wanted this issue put before the jury, but the judge ruled that it should be considered in a voir idre. The wrangle that ensued resulted in Edward withdrawing from the case, despite the objections of Sister Jo-Anne who claimed that her right to legal representation was being effectively curtailed. Ventresca became involved in the case as duty counsel after Edward's departure. Both defendants continued to protest vehemently that they were being denied the right to present their case to the jury, even after the judge found the search warrant invalid and acquitted them of all charges. "This is a travesty of justice," they declared, when the judge found them not guilty. 

Annoying as they are to lawyers, judges and court officials, the Church of the Universe members also exhibit an engaging charm. Edward remembers her former clients with warmth and good humor, in spite of the frustration they caused her. "They were so off-the-wall that they were always interesting. They used to bring me gifts, wrapped in brown paper, which I would refuse to open and get out of my office as quickly as possible," she recalls. 

But Edward felt very uncomfortable about the sweet smell of sacrament that lingered in the air when she went to meet her clients at Hempire Village, the Church headquarters in Guelph, Ontario. She was also embarrassed by scenes of nakedness on a video about the church activities that the Tuckers gave her. Having seen more of her clients than she ever wanted to see, Edward was particularly anxious when they appeared in a Guelph courtroom wearing only blankets in order to dramatize their claim that they had been stripped of their rights during the course of a trial for trespassing. "It was one of those odd moments, when a sense of humor is worthwhile," Edward recalls. 

On one occasion Edward remembers sitting in court, "hoping the ground opens and I'm swallowed up." This was when Brother Walter got into a dispute with Justice of the Peace Joseph Scime over his refusal to address him as "Brother". Justice Scime is a reserved and dignified man with a reputation for conducting his court in a very formal manner. Brother Walter said to him, "Let's say for the sake of argument that your name was Joe. Out of respect, I'd still call you Your Honour, Joe." When the judge then explained that this was not a personal matter, but simply an issue concerning the formality of the court, Brother Walter replied, "If we could just kick back and smoke a doob, I know we could get beyond that." 

Sister Jo-Anne would bring a thermos to court, purportedly containing a herbal tea, but Edward was always terrified when her client opened the thermos that the judge might recognize the smell of marijuana that seemed to waft across the courtroom. Edward noticed that her clients were usually calmer in court after a lunch break "because they were much less grounded to the earth." 

Ventresca made the same observation. He explains, "Some lunch breaks were so productive that Sister Jo-Anne would fall asleep in court. She used to wear a huge hat and wrap-around sun shades. Her head would fall onto the table in front of her." 

As soon as the trafficking charges against the Tuckers were dismissed, they wanted to get their drugs and money back. They asked Ventresca to help them pursue their demand that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police return the church property that had been improperly seized. The RCMP refused to surrender the sacrament or the scales that had allegedly been used to measure the proper portion that each member of the congregation received. After numerous submissions and phone calls, however, Ventresca was invited with his clients to attend the RCMP office and retrieve the proceeds from the church collection plate, about $14,000 in U.S. and Canadian bills, coins and silver bars. There was some dispute about whether all the money was returned and Ventresca was invited to represent the church in a civil suit against the RCMP, but he gracefully declined. 

"I don't even want to think about how much time I spent on these cases over the last two years," says Ventresca, who nevertheless maintains that his duty counsel fees were infinitesimal compared to the time and frustration that his efforts saved the courts. His claim is supported by federal drug prosecutor Jeffery Levy, who says the courts continually relied on Ventresca to make sense of the Brothers' obtuse and confusing arguments. No other lawyer would represent them, says Levy, "and I often had to say, Thank God for Daniel." 

On one occasion, Ventresca received a desperate plea from a court registrar who had received between 20 and 25 different handwritten motions from Brother Michael that had been bounced from one judge to another and no one had been able to comprehend them. "The registrar said, Please, please, please, come and help us out." There were applications, Habeas Corpuses, Mandamusses. You name it. I spent two days with that pile of documents, translating them into English and legalese." 

Another concern was that the defendants' rights and their legitimate arguments would have been overlooked, if they did not have the services of a lawyer. Not that Ventresca was always able to stop proceedings from getting out of hand. On one occasion, he could not prevent Brother Michael from answering back while a judge was pronouncing sentence. After telling the defendant to shut up several times, Judge Nick Borkovich got so frustrated that he ordered court officers to remove Brother Michael from the court and tape his mouth shut. According to Ventresca, the court officers actually tried to do this, but they could not get the tape to stick to Brother Michael's face because his beard was to bushy. 

Recent cutbacks in legal aid funding will probably mean an end to the kind of special arrangement that allowed Ventresca to receive an hourly duty counsel fee for representing the Church of the Universe members. It is with an air of nostalgia that Ventresca displays some momentos from those trials: an artists' sketch of Ventresca sitting in court beside the wizen faced bushy bearded Brother Walter and Sister Jo-Anne with her sunshades and wide brimmed hat; a leaf from a hemp plant that could easily be confused at first glance with the more potent narcotic variety; a bag of leafy green substance that the police thought was marijuana, but turned out to be catnip or "kitty sacrament."  "In two years representing those guys, I was never bored, "Ventresca says, "I saw things that you just don't see in court, like the cops dragging Brother Michael out of the courtroom as he clutched his hat to his head. Or Brother Michael suddenly producing a 10 pound bag of hemp seed while cross-examining a police officer. Once I even saw Justice Scime laugh." 

Kevin Marron is a Hamilton, Ontario writer.