A Quebec judge has ruled a repeat drunk driver who pleaded guilty to killing a woman in a wheelchair in 2008 is not a dangerous offender, but still deserves a life sentence, the toughest penalty ever handed out for such a crime in Canada.
Quebec court Judge Michel Mercier ruled Wednesday that Roger Walsh will not be labelled a dangerous offender for life, despite requests for that designation from the Crown prosecutor and the victim's family.
Walsh pleaded guilty last year in the hit-and-run death of Anee Khudaverdian, a Les Cèdres resident who used a wheelchair because of a childhood polio infection.
Khudaverdian's family, who said their sister's 2008 death "shattered" them, say they're happy with Wednesday's outcome.
"We made history today, which I think is really significant and important," Clara Khudaverdian told CBC News from her home in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, on Montreal's West Island.
"In the end, it's just a label, in terms of the actual time spent in prison, it's the same," she said.
While the designation is still important to her, Khudaverdian said Mercier's ruling advances public debate about dangerous offenders, and hopefully lawmakers will listen too.
Walsh 'incorrigible' and at high risk of reoffending
In handing down his ruling at the Valleyfield courthouse, southwest of Montreal, Mercier told his courtroom that Canadian law on dangerous offenders is not clear enough for him to brand Walsh with it.
The designation, he said, is a powerful legal weapon reserved for the worst criminals, but did not apply in this case given the law's current wording.
But Mercier said a life sentence is appropriate because he is convinced Walsh would be likely to reoffend, given his 19 drunk-driving convictions and long list of other criminal convictions.
He called Walsh "incorrigible."
The 57-year-old from St. Lazare had more than double the legal blood-alcohol limit in his system the night he struck and killed Khudaverdian with his minivan.
Khudaverdian, who was celebrating her 47th birthday that day and out walking her dog, was thrown into a ditch. Walsh drove away from the collision and was arrested about 10 kilometres away, after he crashed into a ditch himself.
Walsh has a long criminal record, including 114 convictions for assault, uttering threats, breaking and entering, and theft, in addition to the 19 drunk-driving convictions.
Dangerous offender label gives judges options
Until recently, the dangerous offender designation under Canadian law meant an indefinite prison term, and was only used in the most heinous crimes such as murder or serial rape.
But Criminal Code amendments brought in by the Conservative government in 2008 mean prosecutors have the option of handing dangerous offenders a fixed prison sentence with mandatory supervision for 10 years upon release.
Crown prosecutors in Walsh's case were hopeful the Criminal Code amendments would work in their favour.
It marks the third time Canadian prosecutors have sought — and failed — to obtain a dangerous offender designation for a drunk driver.
Prosecutors in Ontario and Alberta have tried unsuccessfully to prosecute repeat drunk drivers as dangerous offenders.