Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Big News in Alberta

So, I haven't written about this at all yet, I was kind of waiting until I had shaped up some comments, and I think I'm ready now.

The April 2006 Medicine Hat slaying of a Mom, Dad, and Son has been especially horrific for Albertans to hear about due to the fact that the 12 year old (at the time) Daughter was charged with their three murders.

A bit of the back story is that the girl was dating 23 year old Jeremy Allan Steinke (also charged with the three murders), and that her parents had grounded her from dating him. The girl was also said to be a frequenter of the website (the same has been said of Steinke), the same site that was frequented by Kimveer Gill (the Dawson College shooter in Montreal). The girl admitted in court (as per CBC reporting) that she and Steinke had talked about killing her parents, but they were just joking. When charges for the murder had been laid, Steinke proposed to the girl, and she accepted.

The neat thing about hearing these things on the news, now as a law student, is that I can piece together some of the concepts and look at the whole picture in a more meaningful way (for me ... I mean ... being a nerd and thrilling at being able to observe the law theory that I learned in "real life"). For example ....

From what I gathered from listening to the radio etc. during the time that the trial was going on, her defence seemed to be based on the fact that Steinke was the real perpetrator, and that the girl was confused/traumatized (from what the media was reporting ... so as for the real story ... we'll see).

I'm guessing that defence was trying to attack both the mens rea and the actus reus (as would be expected)... but it's hard to know for sure until a transcription of the trial is read ... it sure didn't seem like they were putting forward anything like mental illness, but it looks like hints at an automaton defense.

In this CBC article about the murders it says that

"During the trial, the girl testified she was in a "zombie" state at the time of the killings and was unable to stop her boyfriend, or go for help.

She admitted in court that she and her boyfriend used to talk about killing her parents prior to the slayings, but she insisted she was only joking at the time.

The Crown countered that the girl was an active participant in the killings, which she plotted with her boyfriend because her parents disapproved of their relationship.

The Crown told the court the girl had plenty of opportunities during and after the killings to call 911 or go for help, but she never did."

This would seem to support my idea that mens rea was being attacked by the defense.

In the same CBC article about the murders it says that

"Before the jury began its deliberations, Judge Scott Brooker reminded jurors that even if Steinke physically stabbed the girl's mother, her father and brother, under Canadian law, an accused can be found guilty if they intentionally help, encourage or persuade another person to commit a crime."

So ... it looks like the Judge was instructing the jury on the Section 21 of the Criminal Code, Parties to Offences, which would back up my thought that the defence was attacking the actus reus.

The jury deliberated for less than three hours and then returned a verdict of guilty on all three counts of murder.

This is interesting for a few reasons.

First, it would seem that the girl is the youngest person in Canada to have ever been convicted of multiple murders.

Not exactly the claim to fame that I would want for myself.

Second, it has brought forward much controversy with regards to the sentencing that will take place in August.

On the Global TV news here in Calgary, they did a piece (click here, then click on Tuesday's Sentancing (sic) link) with MP Art Hanger talking about the maximum penalties under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA). There seems to be much discussion over whether or not maximum penalties should be raised for young offenders OR be assigned consecutively (i.e. in this murder case, since the girl killed three people, she would be assigned three penalties to take place one after the other, as opposed to concurrently which means that sentences are carried out at the same time).

Section 42(2)(q) of the YCJA (as quoted from CANLII) outlines the sentencing for first degree murder for youths:

(q) order the young person to serve a sentence not to exceed
(i) in the case of first degree murder, ten years comprised of
(A) a committal to custody, to be served continuously, for a period that must not, subject to subsection 104(1) (continuation of custody), exceed six years from the date of committal,
(B) a placement under conditional supervision to be served in the
community in accordance with section 105

The whole REASON that we have a YCJA is outlined in section 3 of the legislation itself, where Canada's policy with respect to young persons is laid out. Focus is put on rehabilitation, reintegration, and making sure that children are accountable only in proportion to their maturity.

While I can definitely see both sides of the issue (i.e. those that advocate FOR the YCJA as it is, and those that are advocating for reform), and I totally agree that children should have a different sentencing focus and structure than adults, I think that this case will truly bring forward some debate over how appropriate the legislation really is. Section 38(1) (The Purpose of Sentencing Section) of the YCJA reads (as quoted from CANLII):

38. (1) The purpose of sentencing under section 42 (youth sentences) is to hold a young person accountable for an offence through the imposition of just sanctions that have meaningful consequences for the young person and that promote his or her rehabilitation and reintegration into society, thereby contributing to the long-term protection of the public.
I emphasized the word meaningful. The issue of whether sentencing a girl who has been found guilty of killing the three members of her immediate family with 6 years in custody and 4 years of conditional supervision is meaningful is a compelling issue indeed.

Sentencing alone seems to be a delicate dance of balance ... sentencing of children possibly even more so.

I'm interested to see ... what do you all think? I added a poll to my sidebar - take a look and let me know what you think about Youth Criminal Justice Act reform!!!


Clay Hilbert said...

I think that there are two major issues with our legal system in Canada.
1. There is no accountability to society by the guilty. No matter how red-handed someone is caught they get to claim innocence throughout the proceedings, sentencing and jail. They are for the most part never made to pay reparations or even apologise to the victims. Go into a prison and ask all the innocent people to put up their hands and see what the result is.
2. The other issue I have noticed is the lack of focus on rehabilitation or reintegration. A lot of inmates are released back into society without having to attend or respond to treatment or therapy.

The way in which the YCJA is different (and better than the adult system) is the focus on rehabilitation and reinigration (rather than cuff and stuff). Another positive move of the YCJA is that the Y/O's name is not released thereby making it impossible for the media to turn the accused into some sort of morbid celebrity. One of the reasons Lt. Col Dave Grossman (expert on killing) points out that there are very few "copy cat" killings in schools across Canada. Another area that isn't receiving due attention is restorative justice such as sentencing circles in native communities. I feel that the 'adult' system has a lot to learn from these other systems and that longer (or supposedly tougher) sentences are not always better (quality vs. quantity argument).
I think the youth system while definitely not perfect is way ahead of the adult system in Canada.

Lisa Hutch said...

Hear, hear. I TOTALLY agree ... and you've said it so much better than I could.

I LOVE that you mentioned the sentencing circles. Last year we got to participate in a mock sentencing circle, and even though it was only an exercise, I could really see how powerful it could be!! That is exactly what I wanted to get at with highlighting that there must be a MEANINGFUL consequence. The consequence that arises out of a sentencing circle has been shown to be so much more meaningful to the offender (not to mention the process at arriving at the consequence).

I have to admit, I do agree with so much of how the YCJA performs, but I struggle still to decide how I think it performs in this situation (regarding sentencing in particular). I haven't taken one side or the other yet, especially since we're talking about the actions of a 12 year old child (12 is SOOOOOOO young, I think people forget that). I don't necessarily think that we should advocate for more "jail" time in this instance, but killing your entire immediate family seems SOOO extreme ... especially for a 12 year old child ... I wonder if this type of offence was in the minds of the legislation drafters when the YCJA was written.

Hopefully, this scenario doesn't ever play out again ... and it will be a moot pondering afterall.