Last week two sentencing decisions were made in two high profile criminal cases in Canada. In both decisions, the court was left to decide how many years the accused will have to wait until he can apply for parole given the multiple counts of first-degree murder.
As we wrote in our blog last week, Bruce McArthur (“McArthur”), 67 years old, pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of eight men who disappeared between 2010 and 2017 in Toronto’s Gay Village. Justice John McMahon sentenced McArthur to life in prison for each of the eight counts. Justice McMahon did not order consecutive periods of parole ineligibility and instead decided that McArthur was not eligible for parole for 25 years.
Justice McMahon, in his sentencing reasons, stated:
Due to the accused’s age, I am satisfied that when dealing with the protection of the public, concurrent periods of parole ineligibility can adequately address the protection of the public. It would not be until Mr. McArthur is 91 years of age that he could apply for consideration for parole.
In Quebec, Alexandre Bissonnette (“Bissonnette”), 29 years old, pleaded guilty to killing six men at a Quebec City mosque on January 29, 2017. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 40 years.
WHAT HAPPENED AT BISSONNETTE’S SENTENCING HEARING?
In March 2018, Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder as a result of his actions on the evening of January 29, 2017.
Bissonnette, armed with a .223-calibre rifle, a 9-mm Glock pistol, and 108 bullets, shot into a crowded prayer room at the Islamic Cultural Centre as Sunday prayers were ending.
The Crown prosecutor argued before the Quebec Superior Court that the parole periods should be consecutive, which would result in a total of 150 years with no chance of parole. This would have been the longest prison sentence in Canadian history. To date, the longest prison sentence of 75 years without parole has been handed down in five cases involving triple killings. For example, in the case of Justin Bourque who murdered three RCMP officers in New Brunswick in 2014.
Bissonnette’s lawyer argued that his client’s sentences should be served concurrently. This means Bissonnette could seek parole after 25 years in prison. Bissonnette was described by his lawyer as an “anxious” man suffering from depression who required alcohol in order to reduce his inhibitions on the night of the killings. He has been described by his own defence team as a “sick young man” who can be rehabilitated and has shown remorse and shame.
WHAT WAS THE JUDGE’S RULING ON SENTENCING?
Before providing his sentence to Bissonnette, Justice Francois Huot addressed the offender by stating:
By your hate and your racism, you destroyed the lives of dozens and dozens of people, and have irredeemably ruined your own and those of the members of your family.
Justice Huot then proceeded to provide a detailed account of Bissonnette’s actions on the night of the shooting.
In his ruling, Justice Francois Huot rejected the Crown’s argument and instead imposed a concurrent life sentence of a 25-year parole ineligibility period for the first five counts of murder and added a 15-year period of ineligibility for the sixth count. This means that Bissonnette will not be eligible for parole for 40 years.
Justice Huot reasoned that sentences that exceed an offender’s life expectancy and offer no hope of release are “grossly disproportionate and totally incompatible with human dignity” and would constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Although Justice Huot did not strike down the section of the Criminal Code which allows for consecutive life sentences, he used his discretion to hand down a consecutive life sentence that was less than the traditional 25 year block (as first-degree murder carries a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 25 years).
According to Justice Huot, the following aggravating factors justified a sentence harsher than the 25-year period:
- He planned his attack carefully;
- He targeted vulnerable and unarmed people in their place of worship; and
- He took aim at Canada’s right to freedom of religion.
Justice Huot also considered that Bissonnette had been struggling with mental health problems in the time leading up to the shootings. He also considered the fact that Bissonnette had no previous criminal record, he pleaded guilty, and he expressed remorse.
Lawyers for both the Crown and the defence will be reviewing Justice Huot’s lengthy 246-page decision to decide whether to appeal the sentence. We will continue to follow this case and will report any developments that occur in this blog.
In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding charges laid against you or your legal rights, please contact the experienced criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947. Our skilled criminal lawyers have significant experience defending a wide range of criminal charges and protecting our clients’ rights. We offer a 24-hour phone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice at all times.