An "unprecedented" number of victim impact statements has delayed the sentencing hearing for the killer of a Winnipeg high school student — and legal experts say the relatively new Canadian Victims Bill of Rights is responsible.
Ninety-six people have submitted statements about how the death of 17-year-old Cooper Nemeth affected them. More than a dozen of those have asked to read their statements in court.
"This is the only one (case) I'm aware of that's gotten this result since the law was changed in 2015," said Scott Newman, spokesperson for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba.
"This is a very unusual case where you have one person taken from the community but a large interest in people coming forward to have their say."
Justice Glenn Joyal is not happy he learned with little notice of 96 victim impact statements in Cooper Nemeth murder case. "This should never happen again." #cbcmb— @karenpaulscbc
Justice Joyal will accept 96 statements to be admitted and 16 to be read in court Wednesday. Redacted statements have to be ready by tomorrow. "This case ought to be seen as a precedent for nothing in terms of number." #cbcmb— @karenpaulscbc
Nemeth was a popular high school hockey player. His disappearance after a 2016 Valentine's Day house party prompted a citywide search involving hundreds of people, including friends, teammates and strangers.
According to an agreed statement of facts provided to court, Nemeth met up with Nicholas Bell-Wright, who said he could help him set up a drug deal. Bell-Wright, 23, later shot Nemeth twice in the head.
He was arrested the next day and later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
"If 96 people have put forward victim impact statements, 96 people have been affected and 96 people want to be heard," said Karen Wiebe, executive director of the Manitoba Organization for Victim Assistance (MOVA).
"This is their only opportunity to face this person and say 'This is what you've done to me because of your actions.' And that is immensely important."
A judge was expected to sentence Bell-Wright on Jan. 15, but the hearing was postponed because of the sheer number of victim impact statements.
Canadian Victims Bill of Rights expanded definition
A hearing today will look at the admissibility of each statement. Justice Glenn Joyal is expected to decide how many will be read in court and how many will be entered as exhibits.
In the past, the law stated there had to be a direct connection between a crime and an individual.
However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper brought in the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights in 2015. It changed the Criminal Code to expand the definition of a victim, so it now includes anyone that has suffered emotional harm as a result of a crime, even if it didn't involve them personally.
That means someone reading the story in a newspaper or seeing it on TV could qualify as a victim, opening the floodgates in a case like Nemeth's, Newman said.
"The plain reading of the law now as it is doesn't put any limitation on who is a victim," he said.
"That's really the issue here — who is a victim here? And once someone is deemed to be a victim of a crime, they have expansive rights under the Victims Bill of Rights. They're entitled to know the status of the prosecution, they're entitled to make submissions in court and if they wish to be heard in court verbally, they're allowed to come to court and speak on the record to the court so it's a very important issue — being able to determine who is a victim of a crime."
Having 96 statements requires editing by the Crown and defence to make sure they don't contain comments not allowed by the court, for example, criticism of the police or justice system. That takes time and could further delay sentencing, tying up courtrooms, Newman said.
"We don't want to set a precedent to have days and days for sentencing when we could be using them to do other trials," he said. "There are only so many calendars days in a year and we need to have as many of those days productive and pushing towards guilt and innocence."
Solution also in bill of rights
However, the solution to this problem could already be contained in the Victims Bill of Rights. It created a new category of impact statement called the Community Impact Statement, which allows a representative to come forward and speak on behalf of a group.
That might be useful in a case like this, Newman said, where one person could speak on behalf of Nemeth's hockey team or high school.
The provincial victim services division would have to organize a community meeting to come to an agreement on who would speak, and what they would say.
'It can't be a case of somebody gets a higher sentence because the victim is popular.' - Scott Newman, Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba
"I'm sure lessons are being learned at Manitoba Justice and at Victim Services to say in the future if something like this happens, we need to be proactive, we need to take steps to manage this in cases where there's immense public interest," Newman said.
Victim impact statements should be heard because it's an opportunity for healing on the part of people who have been deeply affected by a very personal crime, he said.
"But we also have to do justice. We have to do fairness. It can't be a case of revenge. It can't be a case of somebody gets a higher sentence because the victim is popular. We don't want popularity to be the determinant of what an appropriate sentence is because that's unfair to a lot of other people who may not be as popular."
Last week, Nemeth's mother Gaylene said she's willing to wait for sentencing so everyone affected by the death can have their voices heard.
MOVA's Wiebe said the delay is worth it because it puts people's pain on the record for the court and for the parole board — and forces Bell-Wright to face the people he's hurt.
"He killed a young man. He took his life. He needs to hear about the pain. Because just going to jail doesn't teach somebody about pain for the other people. It doesn't make them responsible to those people that he's hurt because the kid he killed is gone," she said.