Last week Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Associate Chief Justice John Rooke handed out an unprecedented life sentence without eligibility of parole for 40 years.
Without question, Travis Baumgartner’s crimes, murdering three of his co-workers for money, is just about as egregious as it gets and I was among those applauding the Court for taking advantage of a new Criminal Code provision allowing consecutive parole terms in multiple murder cases.
This is one change to the Criminal Code the Conservatives absolutely got right. I don’t often say that but here is why: it leaves the discretion in the hands of the courts unlike mandatory minimums.
And Justice Rooke did exercise discretion. The Crown was seeking 75 years without eligibility of parole, which in the case of 22-year-old Baumgartner would have basically amounted to life without parole.
Rooke cited the defendant’s age, lack of criminal record and willingness to plead guilty, this sparing the families of the victims from a prolonged trial, as the mitigating factors in his decision.
I am a little surprised that, aside from comments by some members of the murdered guards’ families, this case has not raised the spectre of the death penalty.
Last year, there was more of a hue and cry for the return of capital punishment in the case of Victoria Stafford, the eight-year-old Woodstock, Ontario girl who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered in 2009 by Michael Rafferty and Terri-Lynne McClintic.
Both were convicted of first-degree murder, which, at the time, carried a maximum penalty of life with parole eligibility in 25 years. That triggered an online campaign for a federal referendum on the death penalty. One Abacus Data survey indicated as many as 66 per cent of Canadians may be in favour of capital punishment for the most heinous crimes.
Of course, every sensational case raises at least a passing public sentiment of vengeance. The death penalty was briefly discussed in Parliament in the mid-1990s in response to the Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka case. Homolka was unconditionally released from prison eight years ago. Bernardo will be eligible for parole in just seven years. Both of these results still precipitate public disgust.
Just because someone is eligible for parole, however, does not mean they will get out. In addition to his life sentence, Bernardo was designated a dangerous offender. He spends 23 hours a day in a 2.5- by 3-metre cell in the segregation unit at Kingston Penitentiary. The chances of him being released in 2020 are slim, but remotely possible.
And this is exactly why the government changed the rules. If Bernardo were tried today, there is little doubt he would get life without parole, perhaps muting the voices in favour of returning to the noose to exact punishment on our worst offenders.
Getting back to Tori Stafford, I have to applaud the Stephen Harper for refusing to reopen the debate.
Conservative MP David MacKenzie summed it up nicely.
“I know there is a certain sentiment about capital punishment, and it comes out in these times, but those may not be the times when we need to make conscious decisions about where to go, because then it is a case of anger and emotion,” he said.
In Baumgartner’s case, government MPs haven’t even had to answer those questions suggesting the public is largely satisfied with the new rules.
Of course, for surviving victims of multiple murderers even the death penalty may not be enough as suggested by Janet Stosky, an aunt of one of the murdered guards.
“I am not sure, when you are going through this level of pain, if you can ever feel satisfied with the justice that is available,” she said.