Nova Scotia·In Depth

Colour of Justice Part 1: The Crime

Nova Scotia Judge Anne Derrick recently had to make a potentially groundbreaking decision. A young man stood convicted of the attempted murder of another teenager. Should the fact that he's African Nova Scotian be a mitigating factor when she decided to sentence him?

'They were coming after me. I'm protecting myself'

This basketball court was the scene of an April 15, 2013, shooting in North Preston. (CBC)

Nova Scotia Judge Anne Derrick recently had to make a potentially groundbreaking decision. A young man (called X in court documents) stood convicted of the attempted murder of another teenager (called Y). Should the fact that X is African Nova Scotian be a mitigating factor when she decided to sentence X as an adult, or as a youth?

Part 1: The Crime

On a sunny April day in 2013, X, a 16-year-old boy, headed to his local basketball court. He saw Y, his 15-year-old cousin, chatting with a friend. A group of teens and young kids shot hoops, or just enjoyed the first warm touches of spring. X slipped into nearby trees, retrieved a .300 calibre hunting rifle, covered his face, and returned to the edge of the court.

The 16-year-old pointed the rifle at his cousin and shot him in the stomach. The bullet perforated Y's bowel and chipped his spine. Amid the screaming, X ran away.

X later told officials he thought Y was a threat that had to be eliminated. "The f--ker had it coming," X said. "They were coming after me. I'm protecting myself."

There had been bad blood between the boys for some time, and both grew up in the same close-knit Nova Scotian community. When Y's mother heard her son had been shot, she assumed it was a tragic accident. As she raced to the scene, she prayed someone had got it wrong.

"It couldn't have been my 15-year-old son. He's just a child," she said.

Paramedics and later doctors and nurses saved the boy's life and returned him to physical health. At home, he suffered through a double agony: the physical and psychological trauma of having his cousin try to murder him in broad daylight.

Family connections

X was arrested, tried and convicted of attempted murder. Y laid low, feeling he would be alienated from the community as a snitch. YY, the victim's mother, considered X a nephew and the shooting smashed her family. YY pulled her son out of his social life and kept him and his siblings away from the rest of the community.

X and Y have known each other their entire lives. Their grandfathers are brothers. Their older brothers clashed with each other, perhaps poisoning the bond between the younger cousins. And yet the fathers of X and Y remained best friends, often talking about the bad blood between their boys.

The feud started in elementary school with fistfights. X developed an "intractable" hostility toward Y, court documents say. Fists turned into knives and, ultimately, the hunting rifle.

X fit into the category of the "lucky murderer," the court documents say.

Attempted murder can mean you planned the attack, but caused no harm, or it can mean you planned and launched a life-threatening attack, but luck alone saved your victim. Y survived because someone called for help, help swiftly arrived, and death was defeated. So the "killer instinct" lurks in the attacker's heart, regardless of the outcome.

Did X hide the gun in the woods? No evidence emerged for that conclusion, and Judge Anne Derrick found that while X obviously knew the gun was there, it was "merely fortuitous" and not planted by X for murder. 

'I was getting better'

X hung out with other teens who shared his interest in music, drugs and criminal activities, the court later heard. His junior high principal described X as manipulative, bullying, defiant and aggressive. One time, the principal watched X walk out the office "mid-discussion" and punch another student in the head, in front of a teacher.

X sold drugs, and rumours swirled that he pimped girls. He's never faced any such charges. X claimed he was a pimp in one post-shooting psychological assessment, but denied it in another. To both interviewers, he portrayed himself as savvy and streetwise. During one assessment, he was asked about the escalation of his criminal activities.

"More serious? I wouldn't say more serious. I was getting better. I was making money," X replied.

To the judge, all this painted a portrait of an young man hanging out with a bad crowd. He smoked too much pot, trafficked cocaine, ecstasy, MDMA and pot, and may or may not have pimped girls. And then he shot his cousin in the middle of an April day.

X was convicted of attempted murder. Derrick had to sentence him. The Crown argued he should be sentenced as an adult and face a life sentence.

The defence said he should be sentenced as a youth and serve a few years — and that his African Nova Scotian identity should be an important factor in that sentence.


Jon Tattrie


Jon Tattrie is a journalist and author in Nova Scotia.