Nfld. & Labrador

Judge's comments at murder sentencing dehumanize victims of gender-based violence: advocates

Comments made by the judge during the sentencing of Steve Bragg, who violently killed Victoria Head in 2017, contribute to a narrative that treats victims of gender-based violence as disposable, say local advocates.

'There are times when good people do terrible things,' said Justice Donald Burrage, sentencing Steve Bragg

On Thursday, Steve Bragg was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in ten years for the second-degree murder of Victoria Head. (RNC, Victoria Head/Facebook)

Comments made by the judge during a murder sentencing contribute to a narrative that treats victims of gender-based violence as disposable, say advocates.

On Thursday, Steven Bragg was sentenced to life in prison for the violent 2017 second-degree murder of Victoria Head, a 36-year-old St. John's woman. Bragg will be eligible for parole in 10 years, the minimum allowed. 

In his decision, Supreme Court Justice Donald Burrage said Bragg was "extremely remorseful and apologetic." Burrage also said, based on evidence from family and friends, that Bragg's actions were out of character.

"There are times, thankfully rare, when otherwise good people do terrible things. This is one such occasion," Burrage said in his sentencing.

Burrage's statements were swiftly condemned by Head's family, and also garnered backlash.

Bridget Clarke, advocacy co-ordinator with the St. John's Status of Women Council, said the judge's comments were unconscionable.

"They contribute to a really pervasive narrative around gender-based violence, one that dehumanizes its victims, that undermines the high rates of violence in our province," Clarke said in an interview with CBC News.

Bridget Clarke, advocacy co-ordinator with the St. John’s Status of Women Council, called the judge’s comments unconscionable. (CBC)

Clarke said judges have the power to shape social narrative on issues like gender-based violence, and called Burrage's statements negligent. She said some people of marginalized genders could interpret the statements as proof the justice system views victims of gender-based violence as collateral damage.

"The ripple effect of the sentence that we saw last week is one that is felt widely and deeply. Most importantly, of course, by Victoria Head's family and loved ones … but also impacts are felt across our community in our province," she said.

More education needed: advocate

In a statement, Paula Sheppard, president of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, said lawyers should be required to complete trauma-informed training in areas like intimate partner violence before they become judges.

"Embedding education curriculum to include such training ensures those appointed to be Justices of our courts are adequately equipped to discuss these cases without patriarchal cultural bias," said the statement.

Amnesty Cornelius — a co-ordinator for Thrive, an organization that provides support for vulnerable people in the St. John's region — said Burrage's statements also glossed over the tragic loss of Victoria Head.

"He didn't speak to her accomplishments, her resiliency, her ability to overcome," she said.

Cornelius said the comments also pulled attention from a broader conversation about precipitating factors of gender-based violence like misogyny in society, rape culture and the lack of education on violence prevention and emotional regulation.

Head's family has described her as a cheerful woman who would do anything for anybody. (Caul's Funeral Home)

"I think this judge missed a real opportunity to create a space for education, community dialogue and to really talk about the fact that Victoria Head was not only a victim of Steven Bragg, but she was a victim of a society that allows this to happen every single day," she said. "That's unacceptable." 

Cornelius said the case is an example of "systemic failure," especially since, according to police, Head had worked in the sex trade — although her family has maintained she wasn't.

"Sex workers are more vulnerable to violence and that they absolutely need more support, safety and protection in their line of work," Cornelius said.

"I think this is just one additional example where we can say there was a need here for support."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Malone Mullin