WINNIPEG - Victims of Graham James say Manitoba's Justice Department is doing the "right thing" by appealing the two-year sentence handed to the former hockey coach who sexually abused two of his teenage players hundreds of times.
James was sentenced last month for sexually assaulting former NHL star Theo Fleury and his cousin, Todd Holt, when they played for him in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s and '90s. The sentence, handed down by Winnipeg Judge Catherine Carlson, prompted widespread outrage from both James's victims and the public.
Under the sentence, James could apply for parole and be released by the end of the year.
Holt said he had mixed emotions because he thought the James case was closed. But he said, overall, he's happy the sentence is being appealed.
"I think this is a decision made by all of us, every person out there who thought that the two-year sentence was awful," said Holt in an interview. "It was an embarrassment. It was a travesty. If people are trying to correct that, it would be great."
Even if the appeal isn't successful, Holt said it sends an important message to other child molesters and victims.
"This is an eye-opener for a lot of perpetrators out there," he said. "You can't hide. There are penalties nowadays and we're making the changes."
The Crown had asked the trial judge to impose a six-year sentence, while James's lawyer called for a conditional sentence with no jail time.
Although the judge said Holt and Fleury were essentially trapped and subjected to "degrading and humiliating'' assaults, she said James expressed remorse, apologized to his victims and has experienced "an extreme degree of humiliation" — factors that warranted a reduction in his sentence.
James previously served about 18 months of a 3 1/2 year-sentence in 1997 for molesting former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy and two other players before he got out of jail in 2000 and dropped out of public view.
The Crown cited that sentence in court documents filed Thursday.
"The learned sentencing judge erred by over-emphasizing the significance of prior sentences for similar offences," the documents read.
The Crown declined to comment further since the matter is still before the courts.
Kennedy, who attended James's sentencing hearing last month to watch him learn his fate, said the Crown had to file an appeal. He said he hopes the appeal clears the next legal hurtle and is allowed to proceed.
"It's the right thing to do," Kennedy said. "We need to start recognizing the severity of these crimes."
James's lawyer, Evan Roitenberg, couldn't be reached for comment. Following his client's sentencing, Roitenberg said James accepted his fate and had been punished enough.
But Greg Gilhooly, another of James's alleged victims, said the Crown is sending an important message by filing an appeal. James was originally charged with assaulting Gilhooly as well, but those charges were stayed.
"This isn't a lynch mob running after Graham James," Gilhooly said. "This is a common-sensical reaction to an unacceptable outcome."
James's sentencing was difficult to endure and the appeal will be equally emotionally challenging, Gilhooly said.
"But at the same time, we are hopeful that change will come as a result of the publicity given to this specific instance," he said.
Fleury couldn't be reached for comment about the appeal. He recently wrote on his blog that the last few months have been more difficult than he expected.
"Not many people have to see the face of their rapist in every newspaper, on thousands of websites, next to photos of their own in several publications, and on blogs all over the place," he wrote.
"Not many people have to give public interviews and answer questions about their rapists for weeks on end. I have. And I thought I was powering through it, that it wasn't affecting me all that much. I was wrong."
Fleury said he's going to take some time to concentrate on continuing to heal.