Hamilton

No money for 'race assessment' delays sentencing in Hamilton murder case

Police originally charged Aristor with first-degree murder. The charge was dropped, but his claims of self-defence did not convince the jury, which found him guilty of second-degree murder.

The report would examine the impact of systemic racism on an offender, which could ease sentencing

Samson Aristor, 31, hopes to undergo a cultural assessment report to highlight how his upbringing as a person of colour influenced the actions that led to his second-degree murder conviction. (Facebook)

A team of lawyers is scrambling to find funding for a court-ordered race assessment report that could lighten the sentence of a convicted killer.

The report will probe how systemic racism impacted 31-year-old Samson Aristor, a black man from Hamilton, who was found guilty on Oct. 16 of second-degree murder for stabbing 33-year-old Reald Vercani of Toronto, to death.

Depending on the findings of the report, Aristor's sentence could provide a greater chance of parole and lead to rehabilitation options.

He appeared in Superior Court Friday, sitting slightly slumped forward and blankly staring ahead. Aristor ran his fingers along his palms as his lawyer Kim Edwards, Justice Harrison Arrell and Crown Prosecutor Steve Kim all discussed how chasing the report would delay sentencing.

After all parties decided to hold off sentencing and pursue the assessment, Aristor's face lit up when speaking to his lawyer.

"He feels it's very important that he be fully understood for purposes of sentencing and that it will allow the judge to put in really good recommendations for rehabilitation when he is eventually sentenced," she said.

The call for the report comes two years after Aristor turned himself after the fatal stabbing at The Coco Bongo Lounge near Queen Street North and York Boulevard.

A group of people at the bar, including Vercani, got into a fight with Aristor and his friend.

Aristor claimed he was using the knife he had to defend himself.

"They assaulted my client's white friend and my client tried to help. And then they turned on him. Six men on one," said Edward.

Paramedics arrived at the scene in the early hours of Sept. 10, 2017 and rushed Vercani, of Toronto, to hospital, where they pronounced him dead.

Police originally charged Aristor with first-degree murder. The charge was dropped, but his claims of self-defence did not convince the jury at his trial, which found him guilty of second-degree murder.

Funding for cultural assessment 'in limbo'

But the funding for the report, which could get Aristor a lighter sentence is "in limbo" and may take until early February to secure.

Edwards said Legal Aid Ontario had special funding for this kind of report but it evaporated due to cuts from the Ford Government.

Graeme Burk, the LAO's senior media advisor, told CBC he doesn't blame the cuts, highlighting that the group has no formal process prepared to fund the report, calling it "completely new territory for all of us."

Now, Aristor's lawyer is targeting the Law Foundation of Ontario, which told CBC it recently made a grant to the Sentencing and Parole Project for a pilot program for cultural assessments.

If the report is carried out, it would be the first of its kind in Hamilton and just the third in Ontario — if it doesn't the Attorney General may have to pay for it.

"Getting a true perspective just like Gladue reports for Indigenous individuals, that recognition of past trauma, lifelong trauma, how it resonates within the family unit itself … are huge considerations," Edwards said.

"Most of the people sitting on the bench are older, white people."

A murder case in Nova Scotia which found Kale Leonard Gabriel, a black man, guilty for a shooting death in 2010, was one of the first to use the report to determine eligibility for parole.

Laura Mae Lindo, the NDP'S anti-racism critic, said the fact Aristor's lawyer is struggling to access funding for the report is a systemic barrier in of itself.

"(The report) allows for the criminal justice system which in theory it is supposed to do," she told CBC in a phone interview.

"It focuses on the rehabilitation side, not just the sentence where you're locked away and we throw away the key. There's more clarity on how people and communities have gotten to a point that would have them entangled in the justice system and this thinks through things happening while they are serving their sentence."

Aristor is set to return to court on Jan. 20, 2020 at 9:30 a.m.

About the Author

Bobby Hristova

Reporter/Editor

Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca