Manitoba

'Our family has been destroyed': Apology from meth user who killed teen in hit and run insincere, says dad

Members of Ben Harris's family got up and left a courtroom Thursday as the man who killed the teen while high on meth and driving a stolen truck prepared to apologize for what he'd done.

Ben Harris, 15, was riding his bike with a friend when stolen truck driven by Calgary driver hit them in 2018

John and Brenda Harris say they don't think the apology Justin Joseph Little said in court Thursday was sincere. Their son Ben was killed in a hit and run in 2018 when Little was high on meth. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

Members of Ben Harris's family got up and left a courtroom Thursday as the man who killed the teen while high on meth and driving a stolen truck prepared to apologize for what he'd done.

"I do realize that nobody really wants to hear me speak right now, but all I want to say is that I'm truly very sorry about what happened," said Justin Joseph Little, who killed the 15-year-old and hit his friend just minutes before they would have arrived at Harris's home on their bikes.

Little is being sentenced for impaired driving causing death, impaired driving causing bodily harm, and two counts of failing to stop where a person has been injured or is deceased. 

He pleaded guilty in November and Thursday was the second day of his sentencing hearing, which is expected to last three days in a provincial court in Winnipeg.

Ben Harris, 15, died when he was hit by Justin Joseph Little while biking home. (Submitted by Harris family)

Little hit Harris and his friend in St. Andrews, Man., just north of Winnipeg, on Aug. 10, 2018, as the two boys biked to Harris's home for a sleepover. The friend was hit and knocked into a ditch but lived.

Little has suffered abuse and neglect and struggled with addictions, his defence attorney told court Thursday.

Evan Roitenberg argued Little should serve 4½ years, including time for crimes committed before the crash. Little also pleaded guilty to mischief under $5,000 for a June 2018 break-in in Stonewall, Man.

With credit for time already served, Little would spend two years behind bars if Judge Sid Lerner accepts Roitenberg's recommendation.

Crown attorney Manoja Moorthy asked the judge Wednesday for a seven-year sentence.

With credit for time already served, Little would spend just under five years behind bars if the judge accepts Moorthy's recommendation.

The father of Ben Harris, killed in 2018 by an impaired driver, explains why his family didn't stay to hear the man's apology at a sentencing hearing Thursday. 0:46

Harris's father, John, said outside court Thursday that if Little were to truly take responsibility for his actions, he'd accept the seven-year sentence.

"We didn't believe it was sincere, so we left because we didn't want to provide an opportunity for a show [for the judge]," John said.

John and Ben Harris pose for a photo. (Supplied by the Harris family)

Some of the observers in the court spoke out while Roitenberg detailed Little's history in Child Family Services care in Alberta, sexual and physical abuse, neglect and ongoing addictions on Thursday, prompting the judge to warn them they would be removed if they didn't quiet down.

"I'm not here to defend what Justin did, but to give him a voice so that your honour understands what gave rise to that moment of time in his life," Roitenberg said, asking the judge to take into account Little's trauma, as is often done in cases involving Indigenous offenders, though he isn't Indigenous.

Roitenberg told the court Little seemed to be doing better when he met his partner and had a son, but relapsed when the relationship failed and Little's partner left him, taking his son.

"That was a huge trigger into relapse," Roitenberg told the court.

On the day of the hit and run, Little got high and decided to drive back to Alberta to see his son. That's when he killed Harris and hit his friend, the defence lawyer said.

Roitenberg summarized letters from Little's mother, father, aunt and grandmother documenting his work to make amends, including participating in drug and alcohol treatment, meeting with priests and taking part in counselling.

Roitenberg said he hopes the judge will show mercy to Little so he can seek further treatment in prison and lead a healthy life.

"He needs better pillars on which to rely so when life throws him a curve ball, he doesn't relapse."

Judge Lerner asked for about three weeks to finalize his decision. The Crown and defence will meet with him in two weeks to name a date for Little's sentencing.

Support for victims of crime

Family and friends of Ben Harris gathered after the hearing at Candace House, a space created for victims of crime, including their families.

"It's great. It's a place where people like us can meet after the hearing and meet as a family, as a group, and help each other," John said.

He hopes more can be done to support victims of crime. Neither he nor his wife, Brenda, have been able to work since their son died and have had to dip into their retirement savings.

"It's not like our family is the same but one person is missing — it's not like that at all. Actually, our family has been destroyed," John said.

"It's not like you're doing Christmas and you've got an empty chair, it's more like you just don't do Christmas. It hurts too much. It's been a complete devastation, really."

They remember their son not as a victim of crime, but as a musical young man who wanted to be a rock 'n' roll guitarist.

"I've never seen anyone with that amount of talent," John said.