tp-vital-court090303

Terry Vital, centre, is seen entering the Yellowknife courthouse on March 3, 2009. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Monday in connection with the Feb. 27, 2009, death of Alice Black, his common-law wife. ((CBC))

A Gameti, N.W.T., man who was charged with second-degree murder in the 2009 beating death of his common-law wife has been sentenced to seven years behind bars after pleading guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter.

Lawyers for Terry James Vital, 35, entered the guilty plea during an N.W.T. Supreme Court hearing in the remote community on Monday, following a plea bargain that was reached with the Crown.

Sitting in the local community hall, Vital wiped away a tear and nodded to his lawyer when asked how he would plea, the CBC's Richard Gleeson reported from Gameti.

Vital was originally charged with second-degree murder in connection with the Feb. 27, 2009, death of Alice Black, 31.

Black's body was found in the fly-in community of 283, located about 240 kilometres north of Yellowknife. Autopsy results indicated that she died of blunt-force trauma to the head.

The seven-year sentence that was handed to Vital is in line with recommendations from both the Crown and defence that he serve six to seven years in jail.

With credit for time served, Vital has 5½ years left in his sentence. He will be eligible for day parole after serving less than one year.

Up to 90 people packed the community hall for Monday's hearing, which marked the first time in more than 20 years that the N.W.T. Supreme Court came to Gameti.

Attack fuelled by alcohol

According to facts of the case read aloud by the Crown, Vital began drinking while he and a friend were returning to Gameti from Yellowknife on the day before Black's death. Once in Gameti, he continued drinking with Black and others at a friend's house.

Witnesses heard shouting as soon as Vital and Black left the friend's house, and some said they saw Vital chasing Black. They then saw him knee and kick her in the face, then beat her with a stick, according to the statement of facts.

Relatives went to the house and found Black unconscious on the floor. They called the local nurse, who refused to enter the house because violence and alcohol had been involved, according to the statement of facts.

Vital initially denied any responsibility in Black's death, telling police that he had found her dead. Vital recalls nothing of the attack, according to his lawyer.

When given a chance to address the court, a tearful Vital said he has been thinking a lot during the 21 months he has been in custody about what happened.

Speaking in the Tlicho language, Vital said his violence — which includes several previous assaults on Black — has been triggered by alcohol.

Black's elderly parents, Joe and Lucy Black, listened to the court proceedings from seats at the front of the community hall.

After Vital addressed the court, and the judge left the room to consider his sentence, Joe Black walked slowly over to Vital and embraced him. Tears ran down Vital's face as he returned the embrace.

Eluded police for 11 months

Vital had been convicted at least twice before of assaulting Black, in 1999 and 2004.

In November 2007, Vital was charged with assault and was released. Four months later, he was charged again with assaulting Black, and again he was released. After Vital did not show up in court, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.

But for 11 months after that, Vital remained a wanted man, although he spent at least part of that time in Gameti.

Vital was finally arrested shortly after Black's death, after RCMP officers who had flown to the community to look for him found him walking down a local road.

Gameti's chief at the time of Black's death told CBC News that some people in the community had hid Vital during prior RCMP patrols in the community.

Vital's sentencing is expected to renew calls for an RCMP detachment to be established in Gameti, which does not have a permanent police presence.

Officers from Behchoko, N.W.T., currently fly to Gameti to conduct regular patrols.

Gameti was scheduled to get its own RCMP detachment next year, but police officials recently said that project is on hold because of higher priorities to replace aging detachments in Behchoko and Inuvik.

The YWCA has urged the police force to reconsider that decision, saying having no RCMP detachment in a community puts residents, particularly women, at risk.

With files from the CBC's Richard Gleeson