Marcy Markusa: Trying to make sense of a plea bargain

One of the best things that I ever heard a producer say about determining why people care about a story, is that you need to get to the heart of the feelings that we all share as human beings.

Shawn Lamb gets plea deal that sees sex assault charges thrown out

Shawn Lamb struck a plead deal on Thursday, admitting to killing Carolyn Sinclair, 25, Lorna Blacksmith, 18. In return, the original charges of second-degree murder were reduced to manslaughter. (CBC)

One of the best things that I ever heard a producer say about determining why people care about a story,  is that you need to get to the heart of the feelings that we all share as human beings.

He said the facts will allow you to tell the story but the most meaningful stories and interviews usually come back to those shared feelings. 

At the top of his list was fairness.

You just say the word, "fairness," and it evokes an automatic response that makes us question, "Was this fair or not?" or "Was this just or not?" 

Of course those can be incredibly difficult questions to answer. 

Monday morning I am thinking about fairness as it relates to the plea bargain that was struck with Shawn Lamb. The deal saw two second degree murder charges against Lamb reduced to manslaughter in exchange for guilty pleas.

Before I go on, I want to say right up front, I am certainly not a lawyer nor an expert on case law in Canada, but 
I do have a lot of questions about how we as a community should respond to this case. 

Was this justice or not? 

This morning I spoke with the mother of a girl who said she was sexually assaulted by Shawn Lamb when she was 14 years old. At one point Lamb was charged with the offence.

The mother said her daughter and two other women were pressured to take back their statements as part of 
Lamb's plea deal.

"The Crown attorneys told us that if we continue with the case against him that he would withdraw his guilty plea and this was really the only opportunity that we had that guaranteed he would be going to jail," the mother told me. "She (my daughter) agreed to that because we were in a position where we wanted to make sure that he was convicted of something and that he would be put away. It was very difficult. On one side you want victims' voices to be heard, but on the other side, if someone is telling you that this is guaranteed and that your case would hurt that and it could drag out for years, it's really hard to make that choice." 

I asked her how long her family had to make such a critical decision? She said that the meeting lasted about an hour.   

I asked her is she felt she had enough information to make the decision? 

She said, "It was really vague ... We thought what he was facing was murder. We weren't told a lot. We were told this was a deal, and if we didn't agree to drop our case then the deal would be broken. I feel like we didn't really have a choice, the way things were presented. I feel horrible that my daughter and other women will never have her voices heard in court."

It reminded me of Greg Gilhooly.

He is one of the alleged victims of former hockey coach Graham James. I spoke with him repeatedly when James was in court in Winnipeg last year.

Gilhooly saw the charges related to his allegations stayed by the Crown. It meant that his only day in court would be for personal reasons. 

I remember him saying he wanted to look Graham James in the eye. I also remember him telling me when that opportunity finally came, his knees nearly buckled, and he felt like a boy again.

Here's what Gilhooly, also a lawyer, told CBC at the time.

"Everybody gets something but me. The Crown gets a conviction. The Crown avoids a trial. Graham plays a game … and gets to exert some power over me … and I sit out in the wind with my charges stayed."

He added, "I'd be lying if I didn't say it was difficult, and initially I was incredibly upset … I'm taking one for the team in terms of being the one who's left out. I'm no hero here — this is just something I have to deal with."

In Manitoba. we are one of only two provinces to have legislation that concerns the role of victims in the plea bargaining process.   

It's called the Manitoba Victims' Bill of Rights, and it was announced with a lot of fanfare 13 years ago. It means victims have a right to be consulted about the different aspects of the prosecution of the defendants involved in their cases.

I find myself wondering about the results of these "consultations."

Are these deals already essentially done by the time those meetings happen or are they meaningful discussions? Is the meeting time spent asking the alleged victim to weigh the pros and cons of moving forward or being informed about how much time and money it would cost to do so? 

What about the cost of not being heard? How do you weigh that? 

Now to the length of time that a meeting about something so crucial should take.

The mother I spoke with earlier Monday said that her family had "about an hour" to determine if she should take the "guarantee" that her daughter's alleged perpetrator would go to jail versus going through a potentially painful trial that could see him walk and other charges dropped completely.

Hmmm. Maybe you want to sleep on that? I mean seriously, some days I can't decide what to make for supper in an hour.

I'm not the only one with a lot of questions about the process. On Monday, I also spoke with Debra Parkes, the associate dean of Research and Graduate Studies with the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Law.

She said there's not much research into how the plea deals are conducted and how much is given up or lost by both sides. Parkes said there should be more research done in the area so we can really know how well the plea bargaining system is working. 

I wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps then we, as a community, can decide whether or not it's fair. 


Marcy Markusa

Host, Information Radio

Marcy Markusa hosts Information Radio on CBC Radio One 89.3 FM / 990 AM in Winnipeg. Born and raised in the Manitoba capital, Marcy is passionate about the future of our community and loves how it's growing in both confidence and prosperity. She thrives on getting honest and straight-forward answers for listeners and infuses the show with her energetic warmth and sense of humour.


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