Cross Country Checkup

'It played a large role in my recovery': Courtroom victim-impact statements can be therapeutic

A Saskatchewan judge heard more than 70 victim impact statements this week during a sentencing hearing for Jaskirat Singh Sidhu. While they won't affect the sentencing, they offer victims — and their families — a voice in court.

The statements offer families the chance to share how they've been harmed

While victim impact statements typically don't affect sentencing, they offer victims — and their families — a voice in court. (Shutterstock)

While legal experts say that victim-impact statements — typically delivered at the end of a trial — shouldn't sway a judge's sentencing decision, they play an important role for victims and their families: catharsis.

A Saskatchewan judge heard more than 70 victim impact statements last week during a sentencing hearing for Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, the 30-year-old charged in the fatal crash that killed 16 and injured 13 members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team.

The statements provide an opportunity for victims, and those surrounding them, to describe the harm they have suffered.

Greg Gilhooly didn't get that chance.

Greg Gilhooly kept his allegations of abuse against Graham James a secret until well after the 2003 death of his father. (CBC)

As a junior hockey player, Gilhooly says he was sexually assaulted at 14 by coach Graham James. James pleaded guilty in 2011 to sexually assaulting two teens — including former NHL player Theo Fleury.

Crown prosecutors dropped the charges against James that dealt with Gilhooly's allegations against him, thereby stripping Gilhooly of the opportunity to deliver a victim-impact statement.

"I was consulted, but I had no power in that process," he told Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue.

"Victims have no role in the process other than serving as witnesses effectively in the legal process," he added.

Therapeutic, but don't affect sentence

Montreal criminologist Kathryn Campbell, whose cousin Kathleen Smith was a victim of homicide in 2010, remembers beginning to write an impact statement for that case.

"How do you sort of put into words the effect somebody has on your life — or their loss has — on your life?" she asked.

Smith was killed by a man she knew in 2010 and the case has dragged on for eight years. Based on the evidence provided, Campbell says she believes the man killed her, but he's never been tried.

"He's delayed, delayed, delayed, and he was found not competent to stand trial," she said. "And that process itself is very horrific because there is no end in sight."

As a result, Campbell has never delivered her victim-impact statement in court, and the trial inspired her to study the outcomes of victim-impact statements.

Whether or not that [impact statement] had any impact on what was going to happen, it certainly made me feel better about things now- Greg Gilhooly , lawyer and former hockey player

While they often don't affect the "quantum of sentence," she acknowledged the value they hold for families.

"It's more of a cathartic exercise for a victim's family rather than than something that that will affect sentence in any large way," she told McCue.

'Made me feel better'

Gilhooly eventually published his statement in the Globe and Mail, and wrote a book about his experiences.

"As a victim I thought absolutely I want Graham to apologize ... I want him to effectively validate the hell that I've been living ever since I crossed paths with him," he said.

Greg Gilhooly at age 13, when he says he loved the game of hockey. (Submitted by Greystone Books)

While coming to terms with what happened is an ongoing process, Gilhooly says writing a victim-impact statement was a key part of his recovery.

"The act of having the victim-impact statement as something for me to do allowed me to find a voice and it played a large role in my recovery," Gilhooly said.

"Whether or not that had any impact on what was going to happen, it certainly made me feel better about things now."

Judges in Toronto and Montreal will hear victim-impact statements this week during sentencing hearings in two-high profile cases for serial killer Bruce McArthur and the Quebec City mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette.