Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. man sentenced to 2 years for impaired driving that killed 2 family members

Walter Alfred Joyce pleaded guilty to killing his sister-in-law and her husband Dec. 26, 2016.

Walter Alfred Joyce, 47, pleaded guilty after hitting and killing sister-in-law and her husband in 2016

Joyce, seen here in court in April 2018, was sentenced in Supreme Court in Corner Brook on Thursday afternoon. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Walter Alfred Joyce has been sentenced to two years less a day after striking down and killing two family members on Christmas night just over two years ago.

The 47-year-old man pleaded guilty to impaired driving causing death for hitting sister-in-law Marilyn Sheppard and her husband, Merle Sheppard, in Lark Harbour on Dec. 26, 2016. He was sentenced Thursday afternoon in Corner Brook.

Joyce is also prohibited from driving for two years. He will also be on probation for three years after he finishes serving his sentence. 

The judge also ordered him to donate $1,000 to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and noted he believes Joyce is a low risk to reoffend, and that he doesn't have a criminal record. 

As the sentencing decision was read, Joyce stared straight ahead in the courtoom and did not show any emotion. 

Others started to cry. The courtroom was full and included supporters of Joyce, and others who were there to show their support for the Sheppards.

Joyce speaks with his lawyer Robby Ash outside the Supreme Courtroom in April 2018. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Joyce, originally from Lark Harbour, lives in Fort McMurray, Alta., but has been in custody in Newfoundland since his pre-sentence hearing earlier this month.

Joyce, who goes by his middle name, will serve his time in Newfoundland.

Christmas tragedy

He had returned home to Lark Harbour to visit family for Christmas in 2016. He and the Sheppards were attending the same family party, where many people were drinking alcohol. 

As Judge Brian Fury read his decision aloud to the courtoom Thursday, he provided more details of what transpired at the party.

Merle Sheppard got into an altercation with someone at the festivities, so Marilyn and their son, Michael, decided to get him home, which was just 1.5 kilometres away. As they were walking, Michael returned to the party to face the person who wanted to fight his father.

That's when Joyce intervened and decided to get Michael out of the situation as quickly as possible. Joyce, his wife and Michael got in Joyce's vehicle and started to drive to the Sheppards' home.

That's when Joyce struck and killed them, walking in the middle of the road on a stormy, blustery night. 

Crown prosecutor Adam Sparkes asked the judge for three years on each count to be served concurrently, plus a four-year driving prohibition.

Defence lawyer Robby Ash wanted 18 months for both charges, to be served concurrently, plus three years' probation. Ash also suggested a Breathalyzer test and remote monitoring during probation.

A family torn apart

On Thursday, after the decision, Sparkes acknowledged these types of cases result in sentences that "are a little lower than some of the other provinces in the country."

"We hope they trend upward because this is a very serious crime.… This happens to normal, everyday people who make a bad choice."

He said his office will have to consider very carefully whether to appeal, and that decision won't happen right away. 

"It's just a tragic set of circumstances.… A family was essentially torn apart," Sparkes said. 

Adam Sparkes, the senior Crown Attorney in the western region, called the situation a tragedy. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Joyce's lawyer said he wasn't surprised by the judge's decision and also called the situation a tragedy.

"Mr. Joyce has been an upstanding member of society his entire life and he feels terrible that this happened," Ash said.

"This was a difficult time for everyone involved," he added, noting a family and community have been affected.

Great remorse 

Joyce's sentencing followed an emotional pre-sentencing hearing in March, when several victim impact statements were read aloud. About 70 letters of support were submitted on Joyce's behalf.

I think about Marilyn and Merle every day.-  Alfred Joyce

Joyce apologized in court in March for what happened.

"I'm sorry for what happened that night," he said.

"I can't go back and change what happened. I'm ready for whatever penalty you decide. I think about Marilyn and Merle every day, every night. Lark Harbour is not the same. I can't visit anymore."

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Colleen Connors