Jury to decide if Edmonton hitman deserves 'faint hope'

Keith Schell, 53, is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years for the 2000 murder of Edmonton teenager Adnan Pervez. This week at a faint hope hearing, Schell urged the jury to consider granting him an earlier release.

Convicted murderer Keith Schell tells jury he's a changed man

Keith Schell, 53, is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years for the 2000 murder of Edmonton teenager Adnan Pervez. (Ashley Miller)

A jury will be asked to decide Friday if a convicted hitman should be allowed to apply early for parole.

Keith Schell, 53, is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years for the first-degree murder of an Edmonton teenager.

He has served 18 years of his sentence. The now-repealed "faint hope clause" gives convicted killers with a parole ineligibility period of more than 15 years the chance to apply for early parole after serving at least 15 years.

That section of the Criminal Code was repealed in December 2011 and only applies to crimes that were committed before that date. Schell murdered Adnan Pervez in 2000. He was convicted in 2002.

Now Schell must convince a jury he's not the same man who gunned down an 18-year-old in Mill Woods 18 years ago.

The 10 women and two men on the jury must reach a unanimous decision in order to recommend earlier eligibility for parole.

Schell spent hours on the witness stand Wednesday and Thursday, describing his life before and after he killed a man for money and drugs.

"Basically I hate myself," Schell told the jury. "I hate the part of me that did that. Knowing you've taken somebody's life... changes you."

Adnan Pervez was gunned down in his own driveway. The intended target was the victim's older brother. (Supplied )

As he fought back tears, Schell added, "I wish I could undo this. Whether I'm released or not, there's not a day that goes through that I don't think about Adnan Pervez. I feel so sorry for their family."

The jury was told Schell's upbringing and family led him to make disastrous life choices.

According to a psychological report prepared for the hearing, Schell had a dysfunctional and chaotic childhood. His parents separated when he was five years old and later his stepfather was physically abusive.

Schell admitted the first time he got high, he was only six years old.

"I just liked the smell of gasoline," he told the jury. "I huffed on a jerry can because I liked the smell. I passed out. When I woke up, I thought, was that ever cool."

Schell said his older brothers introduced him to sniffing glue. By age 10, he began to smoke marijuana. He started using cocaine at 13.

He was never taught any morals.- Elsie O'Brien, sister

Schell's oldest sister, Elsie O'Brien, also testified at the hearing.

"He came from a very abusive family," O'Brien said tearfully. "He was never shown any guidance or love or discipline in anything. He was never taught any morals. He turned to drugs and I think it was because of his own pain."

After decades of abusing cocaine, Schell's habit was costing him $1,000 a day. He said the only thing he cared about in his life by the year 2000 was drugs.

Three months after moving to Edmonton, he agreed to gun down Pervez because his dealer offered to forgive his drug debts, pay him $2,000 plus an ounce of cocaine and let him start dealing drugs.

"In three months, life had gotten so chaotic that I ended up going along with this plan," Schell testified. "I wish I wouldn't have been such a coward. I wish I had done the right thing."

'A horrible, horrible human being'

Schell's daughter was 15 at the time. After her father was charged with first-degree murder,  Ashley Miller testified against him at trial.

This week she took the witness stand again, to support her father's application for early release.

"I hated him," Miller testified. "Absolutely and utterly despised the man and honestly wished it was him who took the bullet instead of that young boy. His drugs always came first. His kids didn't matter."

Miller said that 18 years ago, she thought her father was a deadbeat.

"He was absolutely useless," Miller said. "A waste of skin. He didn't deserve to be free and walk around. He was a horrible, horrible human being."

Soon after Schell began serving his prison sentence and was drug-free, he forgave his daughter for testifying against him and tried to make amends.

"He apologized and straight-up told me he was a horrible father, that he deserved to be in prison because of what he did."

The Mill Woods home where Adnan Pervez, 18, was gunned down in his own driveway in December 2000 by hired hitman Keith Schell. (CBC)

Miller said it took three years for her to forgive her father and tell him she loved him. Now she said they talk on the phone almost every day.

"He's a totally changed man," Miller testified. "I never believed the system actually caused changes. In this case it actually worked. The man he is now I'm proud to call my father. I love him dearly. He's proved that he's not who he used to be.

"If I could, I'd have him move right in with me."

'Suitable candidate for early release'

Forensic psychologist Leslie Block told the jury he believes Schell is a suitable candidate for early release. He rated his risk to reoffend as low to moderate-low, and testified Schell's outlook is "promising" as long as he stays away from drugs and negative influences.

Block doesn't believe Schell is ready for full parole, but suggested a graduated approach beginning with day parole could be successful.

"His risk for recidivism appears manageable in the community," Block wrote in his risk assessment report. "He will require time in a halfway house, with supports and supervision and have access to various treatment programs."

While he was testifying, Block found out about two fairly recent institutional allegations made against Schell.

Schell admitted he smuggled tobacco, rolling paper and three lighters into the minimum security prison where he was incarcerated in the spring of 2017. He was moved temporarily to a medium-security facility until January 2018.

Two weeks ago, Schell tested positive for THC during a random urinalysis. Schell insisted he did not do drugs and believes the result was a false positive.

The forensic psychologist was surprised.

"Why would he do this at the 11th hour?" Block asked on the witness stand. "It flies against logic. It flies against reason."

'A reduction from 25 years just isn't warranted': Crown

In closing submissions, Crown prosecutor John Watson told the jury the tobacco smuggling and positive drug test are strong reasons to deny Schell early release.

"He hasn't achieved that level of rehabilitation, that level of reform to make us comfortable to let him back into society," Watson said. "He needs to acquire those skills to resist the temptation."

Watson praised Schell for the progress he has made behind bars over the past 18 years.

"He's made strides and should be commended for what he's done," Watson said. "But he's not quite finished. He needs more time in custody. A reduction from 25 years just isn't warranted."

'An exceptional case'

Defence lawyer Amanda Hart-Dowhun urged the jury to consider removing Schell's parole ineligibility

"Parliament has seen fit to put in a provision to allow for exceptional changes in inmates through this faint hope application," Hart-Dowhun said.

She reminded the jury that while behind bars, Schell has earned his high school graduation diploma and two college diplomas. He's also taken university courses and has completed all available prison programming aimed at rehabilitation.

"The character he exhibits now is something no one would have or could have expected at the time of sentence," Hart-Dowhun said. "Mr. Schell is an exceptional case."

Associate Chief Justice John Rooke gave legal instructions to the jury Friday morning. They then began their deliberations.

At the end of the day Thursday, Rooke told them, "Come rested. It's going to be a long day."

About the Author

Janice Johnston

Janice Johnston is an award-winning journalist in Edmonton who has covered the courts and crime for more than two decades. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @cbcjanjohnston