Sunday January 10, 2016

Why does the Crown want to put a young quadriplegic in jail? - Michael's essay

Constable Garrett Styles died of injuries incurred when he was dragged and pinned under a vehicle driven by a 15-year-old boy.

Constable Garrett Styles died of injuries incurred when he was dragged and pinned under a vehicle driven by a 15-year-old boy.

Listen 5:26

At 4:30, on a rainy morning in June, 2011, a  Dodge Caravan carrying four young people north of Toronto was stopped by Constable Garrett Styles. He had clocked it at 147 km per hour in an 80 km zone. Behind the wheel was a 15-year-old boy whose father owned the van. Constable Styles ordered the boy to step out of the vehicle. The kid refused. Styles again told the boy to get out of the van, and again the boy refused, pleading with the officer to let him go home.

There is some dispute over what happened next. Everyone agreed that the cop opened the driver's door and threw his body across that of the young man. He apparently was trying to undo the boy's seat belt. There is some confusion about whether the young man shoved the gearshift into drive or it was in drive all the time. Whatever happened, the van suddenly lurched forward, with Constable Styles hanging on. It shot forward about 300 metres, hit a ditch, rolled, flipped and landed on the police officer. Constable Styles died in hospital of his injuries. He was 32. The boy was severely injured with a broken neck and left a quadriplegic. He will never walk again. The 15-year-old, identified only as SK, was charged with first degree murder in the death of Constable Styles.

We usually think of first degree murder as something which is carefully premeditated and deliberate. However, there is a troubling anomaly in the Criminal Code definition of first degree murder in Section 231 Subsection 4, which reads:

IRRESPECTIVE OF WHETHER A MURDER IS PLANNED AND DELIBERATE ON THE PART OF ANY PERSON, MURDER IS FIRST DEGREE MURDER WHEN THE VICTIM IS A POLICE OFFICER. 

In other words, if a police officer dies during the commission of a crime, the circumstances really don't matter. The accused must be charged with first degree murder. The boy's lawyer argued that the charge should be reduced to manslaughter. His request was granted but later overturned by a three-judge court of appeal. The murder one charge would stand. The trial lasted seven weeks. The Crown pressed the argument that the boy had deliberately hit the gas pedal, knowing that the forward force of the van would kill Officer Styles. The defense rebutted that the boy had panicked, that he was terrified of what his parents would say, and in his excitement, hit the gas pedal instead of the brake.

An expert witness talked about how that could happen. He called it unintended acceleration and pedal misapplication. The boy's lawyer, James Lockyer, argued that the force of Style's body on SK prevented him from taking his foot off the gas pedal. 

Said Lockyer: "There was a palpable sense of panic and fear in the vehicle." The boy testified from his wheelchair that he was utterly panic stricken when the officer reached into the car. He went on: "Officer Styles is dead and I'm paralyzed for the rest of my life. I always think it should have been the other way around." At the end of testimony by both sides, the jury retired. It took three days of deliberations this past June. The boy was found guilty of murder in the first degree in the death of Officer Garrett Styles.

The Crown prosecutor wanted the boy sentenced to six years in custody. Instead, Judge Alex Sosna sentenced the boy to nine years of conditional supervision in his parents' home. 

Said the judge: "Imposing a custodial sentence will not make SK more accountable. He is serving a life sentence, imprisoned in his wheelchair." The judge went on: "I find fleeing the traffic stop was an impulsive and irrational act, but not an act of viciousness." The Crown has announced it will appeal Judge Sosna's ruling. In your name and mine, the Crown wants to send SK in his wheelchair to six years in custody.

You have to wonder what good that will do. Two families have been shattered almost beyond recognition because of the split-second stupid act of an underage joyriding teenage driver. 

As he said himself; "I should have just stepped out of the vehicle." 

Sentencing is a complex and delicate process. The convicted are sentenced to deter others, to denounce the unlawful act, to protect the community. Given those principIes I have to ask myself two questions: how does a custodial sentence of a paralyzed kid  in a wheelchair serve the state's interest? And secondly, is the Crown intent on pursuing justice, or is it an act of vengeance in the name of the young police officer who died that night?