Supreme Court hears arguments on Quebec City mosque shooter's sentence

Following a hearing Thursday, Canada's top court will now decide how long the gunman who opened fire in a Quebec City mosque should remain in prison without a chance of parole, in a case that could redefine sentencing limits for the most serious crimes in Canada.

Crown seeks 50 years of parole ineligibility for Alexandre Bissonnette, instead of 25 years

Lawyers for the federal government and for several provinces argued at the Supreme Court of Canada Thursday in support of a provision that allows judges to apply parole ineligibility consecutively, in the case of offenders who commit multiple first-degree murders, such as the Quebec City mosque shooter. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Supreme Court of Canada is now deliberating on how long the gunman who murdered six people in a Quebec City mosque should remain in prison before a chance of parole, in a case that could redefine sentencing provisions for the most serious crimes in Canada.

Alexandre Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder for his attack on worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre on Jan. 29, 2017.

He was originally sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 40 years — the longest period of parole ineligibility ever handed down in Quebec.

But in a unanimous decision, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned that ruling, reducing Bissonnette's parole ineligibilty to 25 years.

The Appeal Court ruled that stacking consecutive periods without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional and amounted to "cruel and unusual" punishment.

It also invalidated the section of the Criminal Code that allows judges to hand out consecutive blocks of 25 years of parole ineligibility for multiple first-degree murders — a decision that applies only in Quebec.

In Thursday's hearing, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of those sentencing provisions, which were introduced in 2011 by Stephen Harper's Conservative government in an attempt to prevent a sentencing "discount" for multiple murders.

As an intervenor in the case, Sameha Omer, counsel for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said while the courts should avoid cruel and unusual punishment, sentences also must be proportionate.

"Offenders may elect to kill as many people as possible, knowing that they're not going to receive a sentence that's any different than if they had committed one murder," said Omer.

Lawyers for the government of Canada and for several provinces, including Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, are all arguing in support of the sentencing provision that allows for the stacking of parole ineligibility, while Bissonnette's lawyers, along with associations representing defence attorneys and civil liberties organizations, are asking for that provision to be declared unconstitutional.

Quebec prosecutors asking for 50 years

Prosecutors in Bissonnette's trial had originally asked for six consecutive periods of parole ineligibility, totalling 150 years.

But the trial judge, Superior Court Justice François Huot, decided on a 25-year period of parole ineligibility for the first five concurrent sentences, plus an unusual 15 years for the sixth sentence, to be served consecutively.

The Court of Appeal justices determined that this type of hybrid sentence was a misapplication of the law and was not the right way to address concerns about the constitutionality of consecutive sentencing. 

But the justices also railed against the "absurdity" of a law that could allow parole ineligibility that extends far beyond a person's natural life.

Thursday, Quebec Crown prosecutor François Godin argued that allowing Bissonnette the possibility of parole after 25 years was not proportionate to the severity of his crimes, asking that it be increased to 50 years.

That would mean that Bissonnette, who was 27 when he committed his crimes, could apply for parole at the age of 77. 

"It's a clear case for the application of cumulative sentences," said Godin. "There is no other way to reflect the gravity."

Godin underlined that other multiple murderers have been handed sentences with even longer periods of parole ineligibilty.

That's notably the case for Justin Bourque, who is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for 75 years for killing three RCMP officers in Moncton, N.B., in 2014.

Consecutive sentencing 'an extreme solution,' defence says

Chief Justice Richard Wagner responded that everyone agrees that Bissonnette's was "one of the worst crimes we have ever seen" and one that would "leave scars" on Quebec, and on Canada as a whole.

But Wagner questioned whether an offender would have any possibility of rehabilitation, when facing long, consecutive periods of parole ineligibility. He said the provision could lead to "ridiculous" sentences that "make a mockery" of the justice system and amount to "a death sentence by incarceration." 

Godin and lawyers representing other provinces and the federal government argued that the law still allows judges to exercise discretion.

"It's only when the judge is convinced that the accused does not present a possibility of rehabilitation…[that] he can impose consecutive sentences," said Ian Demers, counsel for the Attorney General of Canada.

Alexandre Bissonnette is escorted to a van after appearing in court on Monday, January 30, 2017, the day after his deadly attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City. He was initially sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 40 years, but that was reduced to 25 years on appeal. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Justice Suzanne Côté pointed out that judges are in fact limited in their discretion, because they can only increase parole ineligibility in multiple first-degree murder cases by increments of 25 years.

Lawyers for Quebec and Ontario both argued that there are some murders so heinous that concerns about rehabilitation should weigh less heavily than denunciation and deterrence.

"Rehabilitation is an important factor … but it's not a trump card," added Milan Rupic, arguing for the Attorney General of Ontario.

But Charles-Olivier Gosselin, Bissonnette's lawyer, called the law "an extreme solution" that fails to restrict consecutive sentencing to only the most "incorrigible murderers."

He argued Bissonnette has "a real possibility of rehabilitation."

Erin Dann, counsel for the Prison Law Clinic of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., which provides legal advice for prisoners and parolees, argued that long periods of parole ineligibility "change the quality" of a life sentence and are contrary to the principles of fundamental justice.

"A sentence such as this one: a death in prison sentence that declares a person irredeemable … denies that human dignity," she said.

Arguments have wrapped up, and the Supreme Court justices will now deliberate on the matter.

Six men were murdered in the attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City. They are, clockwise from left, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Azzeddine Soufiane, Abdelkrim Hassane, Ibrahima Barry, Aboubaker Thabti and Khaled Belkacemi. (CBC)

Boufeldja Benabdallah, spokesperson for the Islamic Cultural Centre, hopes the court's eventual decision will help the community to "turn the page." 

"We hope that this can serve as an example ... and that this type of tragedy can never happen again. That people who are tempted [by violence] know that justice is there ... and that the penalties will be proportionate," he said. 

Benabdallah said a just sentence must take into account the impact on families, on Quebec society and on members of the mosque community, who have had to take significant measures to try to feel safe again. 

However, he said the community would accept the court's decision, regardless of the outcome.

With files from Lauren McCallum, Jonathan Montpetit, Radio-Canada's Daniel Leblanc