15 years after Montreal killing, family demands right to be at parole hearing
Darlene Ryan and her family will only be allowed to phone in to Sébastien Simon's parole board hearing
It's been almost 15 years since Sébastien Simon beat and repeatedly stabbed 17-year-old Brigitte Serre at the gas station in Montreal's St-Léonard neighbourhood where she worked. And the feelings are still raw for her family.
"He stole something from us," said Darlene Ryan, Serre's stepmother. "He didn't steal a doll. He stole a person, with all the dreams that she has and we had for her."
Simon, who married while in prison in 2017, has applied to the Parole Board of Canada for supervised outings. His hearing is scheduled for next month.
But Ryan says she and family members will not be able to attend in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead they will have to listen to the hearing and deliver their victim impact statements over the telephone.
That's not good enough for Ryan.
"It's important for the commissioners to see our reaction. It's not the same when you're talking in person and you're just talking coldly over the phone, even though some emotions might come through." said Ryan.
"It doesn't have the same impact. And I'm truly afraid that if it's just by phone, it's giving him an unfair advantage in the decision making."
Parole Board adjusts to pandemic
On its website, the Parole Board of Canada says it has had to make adjustments because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"[The Parole Board of Canada] has implemented technological and procedural enhancements in order to provide victims, as an interim measure during the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to participate at PBC hearings via telephone," reads an entry on the board's site.
"Victims will be able to listen to the hearing and present their statement for Board members to consider in their decision-making."
In an email to CBC, the board says it has facilitated the participation of 230 victims and 66 victim-support persons at 110 hearings by teleconference since April 22.
Violation of rights, Ryan says
Ryan says that not being able to attend in person violates her rights under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights, which was enacted in 2015 — specifically the sections on the right to participate and the right to information.
Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, has been a strong advocate for victims' rights since his daughter was kidnapped and murdered in 2002. He was one of the driving forces behind the Victims Bill of Rights.
Boisvenu says delivering a victim impact statement over the phone will not have the same effect as if it were delivered in person. He supports Ryan in her bid to be present at Simon's parole board hearing.
"Because when you had the person in front of you, there was a non-verbal communication that you can see, how hard it is for the victim to do those kind of a testimony," said Boisvenu.
"And it's very important to know who is that person. It's not just a voice."
Boisvenu said that if the courts can resume proceedings and still maintain safety precautions, then it should be possible for the parole board to do the same in its hearings.
He said that almost every sector of society has adapted to the pandemic.
"We all wear [a mask] when we go in the grocery," said Boisvenu. "We go to government services, we wear a mask."
"So they can put a plastic wall between the offender and the [parole board] commissioners and the victim."
"Every industry in Canada, every restaurant, they adjust the way they work with some kind of protection. Why can't the parole board do that?"
Ryan has filed a written complaint to the Parole Board of Canada, asking that she and her family members be allowed to be physically present or, failing that, that Simon's hearing be delayed until that is possible.
"If it is too dangerous for a victim to participate and defend their rights by being there in person … it is then logical to say it is too dangerous for the criminal to be allowed outside of prison wall," Ryan argued in her letter.