Unexplained West End killing should trigger sentencing reform

Helder Serpa/Passages MB

Helder Serpa/Passages MB

Helder Serpa/PassagesMB.com

As the clock ticks down toward a new year, reporters in newsrooms across the world are often tasked with writing reflections on stories that affected them in the past year.

Here’s the one from 2016 that’s nagged at me. Its conclusion barely made the news, but I thought it needed a little more attention than it got, as it raises a vital public safety issue.

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The front end of Canada’s justice system by and large does a good job at detecting and punishing criminal activity.

But what needs serious work is transparency and accountability for what happens when certain offenders — namely killers and serial offenders — finish their jail sentences.

Not long ago, a man who viciously killed three vulnerable homeless men in Winnipeg was handed a life prison term without a chance at parole for 75 years (25 years consecutive for each murder).

John Paul Ostamas’ sentence — agreed to by prosecutors and the defence —virtually guarantees the 40-year-old will die behind bars.

Despite Ostamas’s brutality (he described himself as a “killing machine”), some called called his punishment inhumane and outside the scope of a system charged with not only sanctioning criminals, but trying to rehabilitate them as well.

While the sentence Ostamas received was harsh, there’s no denying the benefit to public safety of him never walking the streets again. The system worked here.

We should be more concerned about how the system dealt this year with the case of Matthew James Sellner, and what comes after he walks free in about six year’s time — or less. 

Sellner, 37, viciously stabbed a random stranger, Helder Serpa, to death in an explosion of violence early in the morning on Spence Street in Aug. 23, 2014.

Serpa, 57, was much smaller in stature, weighing a puny 136 lbs. to Sellner’s massive 274 lbs. at the time.

There were no eyewitnesses and no surveillance video to capture the circumstances of Serpa’s death. We just don’t know what set him off or really, have much of an idea about ‘why.’

City police initially described the homicide being as a result of an “altercation” with Sellner — but the fact is nobody knows if Sellner didn’t just snap and kill him for no reason at all.

There was no evidence Sellner was provoked, court heard.

What we do know is that he’d expressed homicidal and suicidal thoughts to police while being interviewed after a prior arrest.

Because he had been mixing his mental-health-related medications with alcohol, Sellner claimed to have no memory of what happened, either.

Again, what we do know is that the injuries Serpa sustained were extremely brutal.

The Crown said autopsy findings showed the knife’s blade “was partially withdrawn and reinserted multiple times.”

This detail is important because it shows what Sellner is capable of when set off.

He’d had long-standing mental health issues for which he’d received treatment, but no documented history of violence.

Police charged Sellner with second-degree murder.

But the weaknesses in the case, the virtual impossibility of proving the required intent, along with Sellner’s intoxication led the Crown to offer a deal to a lesser charge.

On June 2, Sellner pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to nine years. As noted, His term will expire in six after time-served is factored in.

He may be out earlier still if parole officials deem him worthy for absences or day parole.

And in all but rare cases federal law mandates corrections officials grant statutory release to inmates after they serve two-thirds of their sentences.

But the real question and concern is what happens after Sellner’s sentence fully expires sometime around 2022.

He may have taken steps toward rehabilitation in prison, or he may not have.

The public will have some idea if this is so from whatever parole decisions are made, but that’s about it.

The system should adapt itself toward greater public protection in unexplained violent cases like his.

The ones that failed to incur a life sentence and the resulting lifetime of monitoring.

One step could be to have Sellner appear back before the court — preferably his sentencing judge — for a hearing to reconsider their public risk before the system’s clock winds down for him.

If he cannot justify his unfettered freedom, the court should have the option of imposing probation-like conditions, which could include rehabilitative measures like counselling or anger-management treatment.

Obviously, in come cases, prosecutors can ask the court for a peace bond to try and keep him in check. They’ve done this before.

But they only last a couple of years. And then what?

It’s too much to leave to chance that someone like Sellner, who explodes with violence for no apparent reason, won’t be watched.

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RIP Helder Serpa

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