by Andru McCracken
To a bystander, the incident might have appeared minor, an argument between and on again off again couple, a push on the shoulder, the tossing of an almost empty beer can; but the circumstances leading up to and after the event, the testimony of a witness, police and cell guards led Judge Michael Brecknell to sentence a man to eight months behind bars – more time than asked for by the prosecution (The Goat has decided not to include names to protect the local family involved).
The evidence that weighed most heavily for the judge was the threat to burn people in their homes.
The court learned that threats of this nature were recorded by a cell guard, police and left on a voicemail.
While passing the sentence, the judge repeated the exact words used by the accused: “I’ll burn you, I guarantee it.”
The judge said that for a family that had experienced a house fire the threat of burning was terrible.
Defence lawyer Ken Sommerfeld argued that over the course of the trial a change had come over his client, the accused. He said that by pleading not guilty to the charges, his client was able to learn about what he had done, and what he was like when he was drunk.
“We pleaded not guilty, some evidence was called. My client wants you to know and his victim to know he believes the evidence,” said Sommerfeld.
“My client is telling you that he learned about what he is actually like by having the victims testify. He wants to thank them.”
When it was his turn to speak, the accused simply said this:
“I’m very sorry to the different people I have hurt.”
His lawyer asked him if he remembered how he was feeling that day he assaulted his ex-wife.
“I was depressed about my house fire and losing my son,” said the accused.
He reported trying to get counselling help in jail.
“I won’t get any help there,” he said.
He said the grief and alcohol counselling he needs is not available in prison.
“I recognise that being released today [isn’t okay] unless there is rehab,” he said.
Sommerfeld asked the judge if a 30 to 45 day period of incarceration would not be best for the victim, the offender and the community.
The judge disagreed, saying that the safety of his ex-wife, the police and the community at large comes first.
“[The accused] came to a residence to confront his ex-wife about some matters and assaulted her. Pushing her or throwing a partially empty can of beer. He was located and arrested. He uttered a threat to kill [his ex-wife]. And made the motion as if to slit her throat.”
The accused claimed to only have had four beers that day, was incarcerated at 7pm and made the threats at 11pm.
“The level of [his] intoxication is uncertain but he was more sober,” said Brecknell.
It wasn’t the first time the accused had uttered threats.
According to the judge, he was arrested for dangerous operation of a motor vehicle and while being arrested, he uttered threats to kill the arresting officer’s spouse, children and the constable himself, by burning.
Brecknell recalled the circumstances of the shooting death of three officers in Mayerthorpe, Alberta, and a similar case in the Maritimes.
“I take this seriously,” he said.
The judge said setting bail conditions was not enough, as the accused had recently committed five separate breaches of bail.
“[The accused’s] criminal history is not long, but the last three years he has been consistent in his behaviour,” he said.
He said that the accused’s right to be rehabilitated is less important that the right of his ex-wife to be protected.
“The community of Valemount should expect that the peace of the community should be maintained,” he said.
“A person has pleaded guilty to threats to kill by burning down a house,” said the judge.
“Regretfully, I reject both the crown and the defense proposals.”
He handed down a sentence of eight months in jail.
The judge ordered no contact between the accused and his witnesses and the victim.
He did not order the accused to abstain from alcohol once released, but said that he was limited to drinking at his home or at his sister’s.
“I don’t think an abstention order will help you. That help has to come from you and counselling,” he said.
The judge ordered that the accused not be in possession of matches, lighters or any other incendiary device while in public.
The judge also ordered that the man’s DNA be taken.
After the criminal trial was finished, a family hearing was held.
The accused tried to speak to his ex-wife as people gathered, and the defense lawyer intervened.
“You just had a no contact order less than 5 minutes ago,” said the sheriff closest to the accused, shaking his head. “You have to think.”