Murdered by their mother: Who speaks up in court for Amanda and Sabrina?
Parents of other murdered children plan to attend Adele Sorella's sentencing in memory of her daughters
When Sonja Maksymiw-Duszara testified at the murder trial of Adele Sorella, she was one of the rare people to speak with emotion about Amanda and Sabrina De Vito, the two young girls killed by their mother.
Maksymiw-Duszara was the sisters' resource teacher at Genesis School in Laval, helping them with reading and comprehension.
During her testimony, she described Amanda, nine, as the more reserved of the siblings.
Maksymiw-Duszara began to cry as she described the younger, more joyful Sabrina, who was eight when she died.
"Sabrina was like a firecracker," the schoolteacher testified. "She had a joie de vivre. She liked to make friends and laugh and dance. She was more expressive than her big sister."
Photos of the girls' bedrooms, entered as evidence, also provided a glimpse into the lives of Amanda and Sabrina. One bedroom had dozens of stuffed toys piled on the bed, with little dolls posed on the dresser. The other was more muted, with posters of teen idols on the wall.
A jury found the girls' mother guilty of second-degree murder March 6 — two days before Sabrina would have turned 18, had she lived. Amanda would have been 19 now.
That verdict came at the end of the second trial for the 53-year-old woman, after Sorella's 2013 conviction on two counts of first-degree murder was overturned on appeal.
Sorella testified in her own defence in the second trial, explaining that she suffered from mental illness. She had been living alone with the children while their father, mobster Giuseppe De Vito, was on the run from the police.
Maksymiw-Duszara told the court she could feel the girls understood that their mother was going through a difficult time.
"They wanted to do a party for their mother to show they love her," she testified through tears.
No family to evoke memory of sisters
Aside from Maksymiw-Duszara in her touching testimony, there was never anyone present in the gallery, not during the trial nor when the guilty verdict came down, to evoke the memory of the two dead sisters.
That's in stark contrast to a number of recent, high-profile trials in Montreal in which the presence of family members had an impact on the court proceedings.
"It's not always possible, but somebody should be there to defend the victim, because obviously they're voiceless. They were murdered," said Darlene Ryan, who speaks for a Quebec association for the families of missing and murdered people, known by its French acronym AFPAD.
Ryan's stepdaughter, 17-year-old Brigitte Serre, was stabbed to death while working at a gas station in Montreal's Saint-Léonard neighbourhood in 2006.
Ryan believes her family's constant presence throughout the judicial proceedings played a role in the decision of one of the men charged with the teen's second-degree murder to plead guilty.
"Tommy Gagné was the only one that sort of showed any type of remorse," said Ryan. "I think our presence there helped."
"He kept on looking at us, and when we would be looking at him, he'd drop his head. If he would see us cry, he would drop his head."
The evidence Gagné provided to prosecutors helped secure a guilty plea from his co-defendant, Sébastien Simon, on the more serious charge of first-degree murder. Gagné later committed suicide in prison.
Ryan believes the presence of family members of the victim in the courtroom leaves a strong impression on jurors and on the judge presiding over a trial.
"They're human beings. They see our reactions. And it puts a loving face to the victim, instead of a blood-tinged crime photo," said Ryan.
Beaulieu-Patry family present every day
There were times during the trial of Randy Tshilumba that Nathalie Beaulieu and her family could not sit in the actual courtroom. The testimony about some of the details surrounding the death of Beaulieu's daughter, Clémence Beaulieu-Patry, 20, was too painful to hear. Nonetheless, they were at the courthouse every day.
"During a trial, we don't talk about the victim a lot," said Beaulieu. "We talk about the killer, naturally. There are photos of the crime site, but not of the person [who was killed], showing who they were."
Beaulieu said her family's daily presence at the trial was important to give Clémence a voice.
"She's no longer there to defend herself," said Beaulieu.
"It's been three years since she died, and it's still very, very painful. She would be 24 years old this year, and you wonder what she'd be doing right now. At least we got the feeling we got justice for Clémence."
Beaulieu believes her constant presence left a mark on Superior Court Justice Hélène Di Salvo.
During sentencing for Tshilumba, Di Salvo addressed Beaulieu and her daughter's father, saying she was touched by how everyone referred to their daughter as Clémence, and not Ms. Beaulieu-Patry.
"She was never anonymous during the whole trial, and I tell you this because it's very special," said the judge.
Beaulieu believes the jury was not indifferent to her daily presence at court, either. She said one juror contacted her after the trial through a Facebook page dedicated to Clémence.
"He told us how hard being on the jury was, that he had two young girls," said Beaulieu. "He said how proud he was to have acted as a juror, and he'll never forget Clémence."
Beaulieu is convinced that having the family in court, day after day, had a tangible effect on the jurors and their deliberations.
"It puts a human side to the victim. It reminds people she had a family, and there are people who are suffering from this killing."
The need to be there, and the need to be away
Isabelle Gaston has had her share of sitting through trials. Her ex-husband, Guy Turcotte, killed their two children Olivier, five, and Anne-Sophie, three, in 2009 after an acrimonious separation.
A jury initially found Turcotte not criminally responsible for the deaths in 2011. Two years later, the province's high court ordered a second trial, and a jury found Turcotte guilty of second-degree murder in 2015.
Throughout that ordeal, Gaston tried to keep Olivier and Anne-Sophie in the foreground. She was present through most of Turcotte's first trial, but less so during the second.
"I didn't want my constant presence to cause a distraction and cause the jurors to forget my children," said Gaston in an email to CBC.
But she still felt the need to represent her children throughout the two trials and to speak for them at Turcotte's sentencing.
"It was important for me to attend the trial so that my children have a voice," she said. "Too often, with the passage of time, the victims are forgotten."
Gaston said she paid close attention to the Sorella trial.
"I followed the trial hoping that justice would be rendered for the two girls. Many of us have not forgotten them," she said. "It makes me sad that nobody was there for the two little girls."
'I want people to know I loved my daughter'
Marlène Dufresne was at the trial of Jonathan Mahautière, her 17-year-old daughter Gabrielle Dufresne-Élie's killer, every day to keep her memory alive.
"During a trial, they don't often talk about the victim; they always talk about the accused," said Dufresne. "So by being there, it's as if the victim is there."
"I'm there, and I want people to know that I'm there. I want people to know I loved my daughter, and she was important to me."
Dufresne, like Nathalie Beaulieu, believes her presence had a lasting impact on Superior Court Justice Sophie Bourque — the judge who presided over Mahautière's trial.
The victim impact statements, where family members are invited to talk about how the crime committed against a loved one has affected them, are among the most emotional moments at any trial.
Dufresne said when the time came to give her statement, Justice Bourque called her to the front of the courtroom to read it. Afterwards, the judge reached out to hold her hands and address her.
"She told me, 'Your presence was very important during the trial. It meant a lot, as much for the jury as it did for me,'" said Dufresne. "Judge Bourque said our presence helped her understand the love that we had for [Gabrielle]."
No victim impact statements for De Vito girls
The Crown in the Sorella case does not expect anyone to give a victim impact statement when the Laval woman is sentenced Friday.
CBC contacted a phone number associated with a foundation set up in memory of the De Vito sisters, but the person who answered did not want to be interviewed.
Dufresne and other members of AFPAD plan on being present in the courtroom: they want to be there for Amanda and Sabrina.
"I'll be there, and I hope the judge sees me," said Dufresne.
Bourque, the same judge who presided over the trial of Gabrielle Dufresne-Élie's killer, will determine Sorella's sentence.
When she pronounces that sentence, it's not likely there will be a grieving relative to call forward, whose hands she could hold, and to whom she could show the same tenderness she showed to Marlène Dufresne.