Denise and Michael Scriven have been ordered to serve 20 months in jail by an Edmonton judge for their roles in the death of Denise's mentally disabled sister, Betty Anne Gagnon.

The Scrivens, charged with failing to provide the "necessaries of life," were sentenced in an Edmonton courtroom Thursday almost four years after Gagnon died, following months of deprivation, neglect and beatings.

The treatment of Gagnon, 48, was "callous and cruel … degrading, humiliating and cannot be justified in any way," Justice Sterling Sanderman told the court.

"They engaged in atrocious activities."

The Scrivens' actions were "truly abhorrent, but does that make them horrible individuals? The answer's no," the judge said.

"She died in their care, but it can't be linked to any one action taken by the accused," he said.

As Sanderman said he believed the Scrivens are remorseful and "to a large extent ... have rehabilitated themselves," Denise Scriven wiped away tears.

They're not cruel and evil, he added.

Sanderman said he "wrestled" with the possibility of handing down a conditional sentence, but decided 20-month jail terms were appropriate.

The proceedings were observed by Sue Thomas, Heather O'Bray and Suzanne Jackett,  the women who cared for Gagnon before she went to live with her sister. 

Outside the courthouse, Jackett said the Scrivens received a more severe sentence than she had been expecting. 

"We didn't expect to get jail time, to be honest," she said. "So to get any jail time is some satisfaction.”

However, Jackett is furious at the RCMP, which she believes mishandled the case.

“I’m devastated that some things that they did or did not do resulted in us not being able to go forward with stronger convictions against the Scrivens.”

Accused couple minimizes responsibility

Mentally disabled because of oxygen deprivation at birth, Gagnon died in November 2009, weighing only 65 pounds.  

The couple, who lived on a rural property east of Edmonton, admitted they kept Gagnon locked up, at times in a basement, a dog run, a garage or a filthy unheated converted bus.

Her deteriorating conditions coincided with the Scrivens' growing crack cocaine use, prosecutor Scott Niblock told Justice Sterling Sanderman on Thursday.

Denise Scriven, whom the prosecutor held as more to blame than her husband in the treatment of Gagnon, "began using crack cocaine in 2009 as self-medication," causing her to lose her job and creating conflict in the home with her husband.

Michael Scriven was a "periodic user of cocaine," using "only two or three times per month as that's all they could afford," he said.

Both minimize their responsibility for Gagnon's death, with Denise Scriven justifying her actions because her attempts to get help went unanswered, while her husband also blamed the situation on the lack of support from the province.

Michael Scriven had a mental breakdown in September 2009 and was suicidal, Niblock said.

The home was steeped in paranoia, mental problems and marriage issues as the couple slowly cut themselves off from the outside world, he said.

Niblock told the court the Scrivens were "ill-equipped" from the outset to care for Gagnon, as they couldn't even care for themselves, he said.

Lawyers for the Scrivens argued that the couple should receive conditional sentences of house arrest and a significant number of hours of community service.
 
The lawyers, Laura Stevens for Denise Scriven and Anna Konye for Michael Scriven, denied their clients caused Gagnon's death.

"That is certainly not part of the facts" Konye said.

Lawyers point to lack of support

Both lawyers pointed to the lack of support from provincial agencies the couple faced in caring for Gagnon.

"Their frequent and repeated request for help" should be considered in sentencing, Stevens said.

Denise Scriven cared appropriately for Gagnon for years before problems began, she said.

Michael Scriven no longer uses crack cocaine and is rated as a low to moderate risk to reoffend, while Denise Scriven has good prospects for rehabilitation, the lawyers argued.

Originally the Scrivens were charged with manslaughter, but after months of negotiations, they agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of failing to provide the "necessaries of life," which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The defence lawyers had asked for house arrest.

With files from CBC's Janice Johnston