Notes for a long weekend

(James Turner)

It’s rapture day. And while I’m still waiting for the brimstone to fall and my dogs to start talking about how awesome heaven is, I thought I’d make these [maybe final?] notes.

If a tree falls?

It’s been a violent week in Winnipeg. Lots of apparently culpable homicides and other violent acts taking place — including one in particular that has a lot of people on edge.

But I wanted to give kudos to Gabrielle Giroday of the Free Press for her story today about Iris Heald, who died earlier this week after an attack on the street. Likely due to the overwhelming amount of violence, Heald’s death went largely unreported. And although I tend to personally eschew the news convention of chasing grief, Giroday acknowledged the victim in this case with respect and distance — and best of all, honesty.

“Iris Heald had few friends. And she had no family in the city.”

And, at the root of it, is why it’s sad she died the way she did, and why the story is, in my view, an important one.

A personal aside

Two people who touched my life years ago recently died. I found out about both of the deaths today.

One was a young woman who I dated extremely briefly in the year 2001. She killed herself in early May.

Having not seen her for years, I can’t say what went wrong, but my understanding is she suffered from severe bouts of depression — despite being (at least outwardly) a vibrant, creative and outgoing person. Regardless of whether we kept in touch or not, I’m sad she’s gone. She touched a lot of people’s lives, judging by the reaction to her death.

It’s odd the impression people leave: she had the most lovely nose.

The second was an Irish doctor who used to work in Osborne Village who was regular customer at the bar at the former Tap and Grill restaurant, where I worked for many years.

Although he was likely one of the most ornery people I’ve ever met, he was in turn funny, interesting and at times, even encouraging.

“You’ll be a great poet,” he once told me, despite my denials of having any interest in that line of work. Regular readers of this blog may even find that comical.

He died at the Riverview Health Centre on Wednesday. I don’t know what from. He was heavy smoker and drinker when I knew him, so maybe that had something to do with it.

RIP to them both.

From the notebook –

I wanted to put on the record — at least more comprehensively — Judge Linda Giesbrecht’s comments to John Petriew during his sentencing hearing last year for his sixth impaired driving conviction. The 35-year-old is being held in custody after a boating mishap last Saturday on the Assiniboine that police believe claimed the life of a 37-year-old man. In her reasons, Giesbrecht stated she was uncomfortable accepting a plea deal where Petriew pleaded guilty and got a time-served sentence of 10 months [at double credit].

The joint recommendation is a bit difficult for me, because it’s low in my view …

You keep drinking and driving … you are endangering the public every time you do this. And this is your sixth time in committing this type of offence …

Every day in this country people are killed, people are injured and there’s massive property loss — and thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost wages of people being hurt and injured — nevermind the toll it takes on people who have lost loved ones because of drunk drivers …

You have a couple of kids — how would you feel if one day they were off to school and a drunk driver smashed through some intersection and kills one of them or puts them in a wheelchair?

She then cautions him that any subsequent DUI convictions could lead to serious prison time.

I just want you to know … that what you’re risking is a penitentiary sentence — the sentences will just keep going up. And if you were ever in an accident where you hurt someone when you were drunk, you would probably be going into the penitentiary for many, many years. There’s just no question of that.

I’m talking you could even go double digits because of your terrible driving record. You cannot afford another impaired drive. That’s all I’m telling you.

I’ll direct readers at this point to consider today’s Globe and Mail and it’s feature on the persistence of drinking and driving in Canada.

Specifically, I’d ask you to read page 3 of the article — regarding repeat offenders.

Essentially, if sanctions and punishment won’t work for people like Petriew, maybe incentives will, Erin Anderssen’s subject suggests:

Since punitive sentence fail to deter these people, they are more likely to be influenced by incentives. For instance, Dr. Brown suggests, they may agree to installing an interlock device, requiring a driver to provide a breath sample before the car will turn on, if it means lower insurance rates and a reduction in fines. (Ontario introduced a law last August allowing first-time offenders to reduce their license suspension if they install the device.)

Dr. Brown concedes that “anything with the whiff of a reward” may be unpalatable to the public. But one reason broader campaigns are facing diminishing returns may be that they’re failing to reach the niche of the population likely to cause more accidents.

Following this, is the DUI rate in Manitoba a further argument for rapid, accessible transit? We’re likely not gonna get any better if the car culture stays entrenched.

It’s the leading criminal cause of death in Canada. The problem in Manitoba is statistically more an issue here than elsewhere.

Like the local judge above says, the toll impaired driving takes on people, their families and the public purse is huge.

But we don’t — to my knowledge, anyways — have a dedicated unit of police officers (like homicide, for example) working 24-7 to hunt down drunks and keep them off our roads.

Why is that?

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Should Lucy Muthoka have faced charges?

Lucy Muthoka at the scene of the June 25, 2008 Crash. Winnipeg Free Press photo/Boris Minkevich

I say no.

Lucy Muthoka — the Winnipeg woman who killed two Manitoba men with her car in a massive downtown crash on June 25, 2008 — should never have been criminally charged.

That’s my personal view of the case, based on the outcome of it, decided yesterday at the law courts building.

Notwithstanding the grief the dead men’s families feel, and their views that they were treated unfairly by the legal system — the way this case proceeded and ended all points to a tragic accident having taken place.

Let’s look at the timeline.

June 25, 2008: the fatal crash at St. Mary and Donald. William Halcrow and James Ross are killed and David Matsubara is seriously injured.

Dec. 11, 2008: Muthoka is arrested and charged with two counts of criminal negligence causing death. The homicide-related charges reflect the seriousness of what happened, reporters are told. They were laid in consultation with the Crown’s office. Remember, it’s been more than six months that the crash happened.

There’s no allegations that drugs or alcohol have anything to do with what happened.

The case winds its way through the courts for more than a year. Muthoka is out on bail, given that she has no priors, is a valued federal government employee and is considered a leader in Winnipeg’s African community.

March 4, 2010: Muthoka enters guilty pleas to lesser charges of dangerous driving causing death, bringing the unlikely prospect of prison time down from a possible maximum of life behind bars to 14 years.  Even at this late stage in the case, there’s still evidently some issues about how the crash happened, and whether Muthoka was at fault

The Crown accepts her pleas in full answer to the men’s deaths, and basically telegraphs to the court that no jail time would be sought.

Under the Criminal Code, Muthoka faces a maximum 14-year prison term, however the court has ordered a pre-sentencing report be drawn up by an agency that specializes in community-based sentencing alternatives.

Neither the Crown nor Simmonds made any comment at the hearing about what sentence they are seeking in the case.

Friday Aug. 20, 2010: More than two years after the crash, Judge Brent Stewart, Muthoka, the lawyers and members of the victim’s families gather in in a courtroom to decide Muthoka’s [clearly pre-determined) fate. The Crown takes no position.

Muthoka, a religious woman, apologizes for what happened and has to hear the victim impact statements of the families of the men she killed.

In passing sentence, the judge declares that the courts are not courts of vengeance and suspends Muthoka’s sentence, bars her from driving for 10 years and hands her two years of probation.

Conditions include many “restorative” principles, including mediation with the victims’ families if it can be done, and community service of 240 hours.

That’s it.

Halcrow and Ross’ families leave upset, feeling justice wasn’t done.

But let’s be honest: There’s no way locking Muthoka up — for any period of time — would satiate their grief in any way in the first place.

If the end result of the case was this and was always thus, I ask what the point of charging her in the first place was.

The Crown signs off initially on two very serious homicide-related charges, reduces them on plea and ends up taking no public position as to sentence.

It’s pretty clear there was little interest in prosecuting this case.

And, it appears there was little public interest in doing so either, given the sheer number of people commenting on stories about the verdict that echo exactly what I’ve said here.

The charges should have been stayed a long time ago and the whole incident seen for what it was: a tragic accident committed by a novice driver who is sincerely remorseful.

If I’m not mistaken, MPI could have imposed the driver ban, which is probably the most harsh aspect of the whole judicial punishment.

But I have to ask: If there was evidence to lay criminal negligence causing death two years ago, what happened to it?

PS: I was at the provincial court counter when Muthoka was signing her probation order.

She was with a friend/support who kept glaring at me, I guess sensing I was curious about Muthoka, or somehow knew I was with the media.

She and Muthoka slipped out the Woodsworth Building entrance, thus avoiding any possibility of a confrontation with the victims’ families or the media.

A smart defence lawyer handling a high-profile case always tells their client to come and go by this route.

PPS: I call ‘boo’ on the scheduling mishaps that took place with Muthoka’s case on Friday, which make me wonder if there was a deliberate attempt to keep the sentencing out of the papers or other media.

After the last June 30 remand date, the sentencing was set for 2 p.m. Aug. 20 in courtroom 404 – the provincial court side of the Law Courts complex.

When I turned up at court on Friday, the docket reflected exactly that. 2 p.m., 404.

But, turns out about a week ago, it was quietly rescheduled for Friday morning in a courtroom on the second floor of the Queen’s Bench [old Law Courts] side of the building.

And then it was bumped down a floor to another courtroom just before the hearing started.

No note was placed on the door of courtroom 404 to advise of the change, and it’s really surprising the docket wasn’t altered to reflect the new time and courtroom, as that’s been pretty standard practice for some time now.

Thanks to Global Winnipeg’s Jeff Keele for being on the ball and filling me in on what happened.

No other reporter in town actually made it into the room for the hearing because of the “mixup.”

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