Nfld. & Labrador

Who's the victim? Families of dead Newfoundlanders question role in court system

Would you do it? Take the photo of your loved one and put it away to protect the rights of the person accused of killing them?

When victims can't appear in court, families say photos keep their presence known

The families of Nick Coates, Triffie Wadman and Matthew Churchill weigh in on the discussion surrounding the rights of victims in the Canadian justice system. (CBC)

Would you do it? Take the photo of your loved one and put it away to protect the rights of the person accused of killing them?

For families of victims of crime, holding on to a photo or memento of their loved one provides comfort and allows them to be represented in the court proceedings.

But recent cases in Newfoundland and Labrador courtrooms have seen grieving family members forced from the courtroom, and told to remove any items showing the victim in the case.

Hannah Thorne's family was asked to remove framed photos of the teen during a court appearance in Harbour Grace last week. Alyssa Davis's family was told to leave the court because they wore shirts with the girl's photo on it.

'Keep her present'

Melvena Wadman holds a laminated photo of her daughter's headstone during a scheduled court appearance for Trevor Pardy at Supreme Court in St. John's in 2013. (Glenn Payette/CBC )

"When Triffie was gone we had nothing else left," said Sarina Wadman, whose older sister Triffie was shot by her ex-boyfriend and left bleeding to death on a St. John's street in 2011.

"As her sister, I felt it important to keep her present."

Wadman and her family brought laminated photos of the slain mother of one and buttons bearing her smiling face during each of Trevor Pardy's court appearances.

"You will grasp those things like you've never grasped them before."

It was never an issue — even when the case went before a jury.

"The victims and the victims' families need to be more important," Wadman said, adding for years she felt silenced by the court system in fear of jeopardizing the case against her sister's killer. 

Triffie Wadman, 30, was shot around 1 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2011. (Glenn Payette/CBC )

So, what's the harm in families holding photos in court?

If you ask a defence lawyer, they'll tell you very bluntly: it could infringe on the rights of the accused and prejudice the case.

Rod Churchill, whose son Matthew was struck and killed at the age of 15, questions the validity of that concern, given that a judge's role is to be impartial.

"A judge is on the bench for a reason. He's proven himself to be an impartial person when it comes to the whole legal process, and I can't see how a picture will influence his decision," Churchill said.

"Now, I could understand it more if it was a jury. I can see it having possible influence."

Like the Davis and Thorne families, Churchill was told to leave the photo of his son at home. 

Terri-Lee Coates speaks on rights for families in court system

5 years ago
The sister of the victim of a fatal impaired driving crash speaks about what rights victims' families have in the Newfoundland and Labrador court system. 1:35

'I'm disappointed'

Asked if the rights of victim's families and the accused appear balanced, Terri-Lee Coates is quick to say no.

Her brother, Nick Coates, was killed in an impaired driving collision on Kenmount Road in August 2014.

"I don't think it was fair that the man that killed my brother was not in court. He didn't have to come see the pain that was on our faces," Coates said.

Rod Churchill's only child, Matthew Churchill, 15, was knocked down and killed in a hit-and-run collision on March 28, 2005. (CBC)

"I've watched the video of my brother being killed hundreds of times. And he got to sit home with his family."

Like the Wadmans, the Coates family were allowed to clutch photos of the 27-year-old during Ronald Thistle's court proceedings. Thistle eventually pleaded guilty and served nine months in jail.

Those photos gave comfort and control — albeit small — during a time of turmoil, Coates said.

She was angry when she heard Alyssa Davis's family were removed from provincial court because they were wearing T-shirts in support of the deceased teen.

"I don't think [Sherree Davis] should be told to leave, or take her shirt off or turn it inside out," Coates said. "Let the mother grieve."

Terri-Lee Coates holds a photo of her brother, Nick Coates, who was killed in an impaired driving accident on Aug. 16, 2013. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, said she's disappointed that judges still ask families to keep tokens of their loved ones out of the courtroom.

"It shows that accused persons rights do trump those of victims," Illingworth said, adding the accused has constitutionally-based rights and those of victims are only legislatively-based.

"It is unfair and insensitive for victims and their families who are present to represent their loved ones who've been taken."


Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.

With files from Glenn Payette