Manitoba

Unusually high number of victim impact statements in Cooper Nemeth case won't set a precedent: judge

A Manitoba judge says he will allow 16 victim impact statements to be read at the sentencing hearing for a man convicted of killing 17-year-old Cooper Nemeth.

Justice Glenn Joyal not pleased to learn so many people wanted to read statements

96 people submitted victim impact statements to court in the case of Winnipeg high school student Cooper Nemeth. (Supplied)

A Manitoba judge says he will allow 16 victim impact statements to be read at the sentencing hearing for the man convicted of killing 17-year-old Cooper Nemeth.

A sentencing hearing for Nicholas Bell-Wright, 23, was scheduled for Jan. 15. Bell-Wright pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the shooting death of Nemeth, a popular hockey player.

The sentencing hearing was delayed after 96 people submitted victim impact statements.

"This should never happen again," Queen's Court Justice Glenn Joyal said in court on Monday, pointing to the confusion around the number of statements and how the court planned to deal with them.

Joyal added that the current case "ought to be seen as a precedent for nothing" when it comes to how many statements will be submitted in cases going forward. 

Nemeth disappeared after a 2016 Valentine's Day house party, prompting a citywide search that included friends, teammates and hundreds of others. 

An agreed statement of facts said Nemeth met up with Bell-Wright, who said he could help  set up a drug deal. Bell-Wright, 23, later shot Nemeth twice in the head.

After speaking with Nemeth's family and friends, Crown attorney Keith Eyrikson told the Court of Queen's Bench in Winnipeg that 16 statements were chosen to be read in court. They are from family, friends from hockey and friends from the community.

All 96 will be submitted into court records.

Eyrikson said it would be difficult to read all of the statements in court, but his understanding of the legislation is that if  the victims requested they all be heard, the court would have to listen to all of them. 

 

The 2015 Canadian Victims Bill of Rights is responsible for the number of victim impact statements submitted to court, said Scott Newman, spokesperson for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba.

"This is a very unusual case where you have one person taken from the community but a large interest in people coming forward to have their say." 

Newman told CBC this was the only case he knew of where the new bill had prompted such a large response from people who knew the victim.

The law previously stated that in order for a person to submit a victim impact statement, there had to be a direct connection between the crime and the person submitting the statement.

However, the Criminal Code was changed in 2015 to expand the definition of a victim. This means anyone who has suffered emotional harm as a result of a crime can send in a statement.

"The plain reading of the law now as it is doesn't put any limitation on who is a victim," said Newman.

"That's really the issue here — who is a victim here? And once someone is deemed to be a victim of a crime, they have expansive rights under the Victims Bill of Rights. "

Justice Joyal told the courtroom he was displeased with how late he learned about the large number of statements and how they were dealt with.

"Nemeth's family, friends of the victim, community at large, the accused — there is a need for, I think, closure. There's a need for consistency. There's a need for predictability and there's a need, I think, for some empathy and compassion," Joyal said.

"And that doesn't necessarily happen when these issues are disputed in the courts."

He pointed to a part of the act that says the statements should be reasonable and not interfere with the proper administration of justice. 

Joyal said his concerns around the issue will be met in the coming weeks as the courts set out a more predictable and coherent approach to how victim impact statements will be presented and what kind of notice will need to be sent to the Crown in the wake of the legislation. 

The sentencing will continue on Wednesday.

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With files from Karen Pauls and Kelly Malone

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