Earned Parole: its time is now

prison“… The typical offender tends to have a history of substance abuse, a previous criminal history, a previous negative correctional history (escape, segregation, revocation of parole), low program completion rates and higher levels of imposed residency conditions at release.”  — Correctional Service of Canada on Earned Parole

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time I will.

If governments are really going to take a meaningful “tough on crime” stance while portraying themselves in the virtuous light as true defenders of victims, they would do well to do one thing to back up their rhetoric.

(And it isn’t by increasing the use of absurd mandatory minimum sentences.)

Government must: do away with statutory release policy which frees violent offenders (other than lifers or ones declared dangerous offenders) after two-thirds of their sentences and move instead to an “earned parole” system where an offender must prove his or her early release is justified.

I was given another great example why this is necessary today in a sit-down with Floyd Wiebe, who’s son, TJ, was murdered in 2003 through a truly ugly and feckless conspiracy amongst three (really four or even five, people) — and his body dumped in a field outside the city.

It was a conspiracy which Dominic Urichen, now 29, played a key role in.  He was arrested in 2003 and convicted in 2006. He’s been in institutions since his arrest.

Next week, Urichen will receive statutory release now that he’s served the required 2/3 of his time.

The thing is, he’s done virtually no programming or job training while in custody. Yet Urichen gets out early.

Despite the fact psychologists and the parole board believe he’s a very high risk to reoffend violently, Urichen gets a taste of freedom.

And despite the fact he’s painted by the parole board  as essentially remorseless for what he did (Wiebe tells me Urichen sullenly once told a parole adjudication panel he didn’t even know why he was in prison in the first place), he’s getting out.

Admittedly, his freedom isn’t unfettered. To remain in the community, Urichen, who is clearly mentally ill but denies it, must abide by a number of conditions. They include keeping a curfew at the BC halfway house where he’ll live until his sentence fully expires, keeping up with psych therapy and staying away from drugs, booze and negative peers.

But drilling into the parole board documents on Urichen which reference psychological reports on his case, I realized his was one of the worst I’ve seen yet. In my view, he’s a ticking time bomb. The parole board admits as much in their decision to restrict his movements, they just don’t explicitly say it.  (full decision can be found here)

Here’s just a few reasons why:

  • “Indifferent” attitude towards his victim and “minimal remorse”
  • Struggles to interact with others, which leads to conflicts
  • Limited impulse control
  • Episodes of “delusional paranoid thinking”
  • Denial of mental health issues (he’s been diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic/antisocial personality disorder)
  • Substance abuse issues (was caught with drugs in jail)
  • Never had a real job, sold drugs for money in the past
  • Has “persecutory ideas”
  • Has “command hallucinations” to “stab others”
  • Was hospitalized four times at a prison psych hospital
  • No solid understanding of his offence cycle or how his risk can be managed
  • While in custody took a total of two — two — programs: one for healthy living in prison, another for substance abuse
  • Limited education, no upgrades completed in custody

“You have been incarcerated for many years and the contributing factors to your offending are still outstanding, suggesting that you will easily engage in drug use and association with negative peers leading to a deterioration of your mental health, significantly increasing the risk you pose. You have had a very limited exposure to a pro-social life in the past … this leads the board to conclude you will face significant stressors in the community.”

So, based on the above, what can society expect from Mr. Urichen and his new-found freedom? Not much I’d surmise.

But, he’s getting out next week to try and start fresh, get his life off the ground.

He’s had years now to wait for this day. Prison must have been hellish for him. I mean that sincerely.

But the fact is, there’s no way he should be qualifying for early release.

He should have had to earn it through taking measured programming and skills training.

If he won’t participate, then no early release. Simple.

And not because he should be punished more for his crime — but because by not having him do it simply basically ensures he’s going to be entrenched in the crime cycle and punted back in custody yet again at some point.

And that’s not supposed to be the major goal of our justice system in Canada.

Equally important, statutory release sends completely the wrong message to offenders and their victims.

Rewards should not be handed out when nothing’s been done to earn them.

The following is from a 2010 CSC review panel report examining the earned parole issue. Full report is here.

Gradual release of offenders has been a cornerstone of Canadian corrections for many years and the Panel supports that concept. However, the Panel believes that statutory release and accelerated parole have both undermined discretionary release and generally have not proved as effective as discretionary release in mitigating violent reoffending. The Panel believes that an arbitrary release that is not based on rehabilitation is counterproductive, and when aggravated by shorter sentences, reduces public safety. This has been demonstrated by the fact that most violent reoffending by federal offenders is committed by those released on statutory release. To improve public safety and reorient the correctional system to a system that places true accountability on offenders, offenders would be required to earn their way back to their home communities and demonstrate to the NPB that they have changed and are capable of living as law-abiding citizens.

We also must not forget that in Manitoba, provincial inmates qualify for an automatic 1/3 discount off the sentence they’re handed. So the above could also very well apply here as well. Offer more skills training and education in jails. If inmates don’t do the programming, no sentence discount.

-30-

An ominous number

Ivan Radocaj, left, in a dated picture. (The Great Canadian Talk Show Podcast)

When Rita Cushnie showed up at the RCMP detachment nearly four years ago and was interviewed in regards to the killing of John Radocaj, she had exactly $1.87 in her purse.

Over the four-year life of the criminal case, she reported to RCMP for bail management exactly 187 times, her lawyer, Mike Cook told Justice Colleen Suche last night.

It was a coincidence revealed just before Suche handed the 57-year-old a life sentence without parole for 25 years after a jury convicted her of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

One-Eight-Seven: The cold irony for Cushnie, I guess, exists in how those digits have also been co-opted by the gangster underworld as a kind of shorthand for the crime of murder.

The slang use stems from the California Penal Code, where capital murder with malice falls under section 187 (a).

Winnipeg has already woken up to the news that Cushnie, her (former?) friend Melody Sanford and her son, Donald Richard were found guilty of the brutal murder of the man once known as “The Croatian Giant” in the wrestler’s ring.

I’m told it’s been a number of years since Radocaj — a large man standing 6’ 8” — ever stepped into the fray. Since the late ‘80’s.

As it is with the media, the ‘ former pro wrestler’ angle became a kind of thin trope to familiarize the public with the case and try to keep their interest (mea culpa).

But at the end of the day, ‘Big John’s’ murder had nothing to do with the faded glare of the spotlight or past athletic acclaim.

Instead, what I can surmise is that Radocaj was just a man who was duped into possibly believing he could have a second chance at love with a woman he had known for years who clearly now hated him for some still-unknown reason.

That’s the story of this trial that largely went untold.

As always, the “why” is elusive when it comes to crime and trials. For prosecutors, the “why” is seldom a question worth delving into, because that’s not really the job. The “who,” “when” and “how” are all that’s needed to secure a conviction, it seems.

It’s probably safe to say Radocaj’s belief in redemption cost him his life in the most brutal way.

A life lost for the promise of a few (and I do mean but a few) bucks and a TV set.

His estranged wife, Sanford and Richard (The orchestrator and executioner) each had the insight to recognize early on that they were culpable in the man’s death.

Their lawyers even admitted as much in closing arguments where they each said in open court manslaughter convictions were probably a foregone conclusion.

In Cushnie’s case, however, she had the most to lose, and obviously felt she was sucked into to something that spun out of any sort of control she may have had over things.

From @deanatwpgsun’s story about the verdict coming down:

Cushnie appeared to break down prior to the jury entering the courtroom. Once the verdict was delivered and the jury had left the room, her tears turned to rage.

“Look what you did to me you little bastard,” Cushnie said while looking at her son as sheriff’s officers moved to handcuff her. “You’re dead to me.”

As the public were escorted out of the gallery and Cushnie was taken into custody for the first time since her arrest, her anxiety spilled over.

“No!” the elderly and frail-looking woman exclaimed, apparently in sheer fright as the female Sheriff approached with the handcuffs.

“Stop it,” the Sheriff barked back at her.

To her credit, Cushnie was the only one of the trio who addressed Radocaj’s grieving mother directly prior to being sentenced:

“I didn’t encourage him,” she said, an obvious reference to her son.

“I feel for you as a mother.”

If her conviction is ultimately upheld (I’d expect a swift appeal) she won’t be eligible for parole until age 82.

Other notes:

At least two jurors — one in particular — were visibly distraught as their decision was read by the foreman last night. By my count, all but two stayed for the sentencing portion and reading of the victim impact statements.

From behind the jury room door upon their exit, loud sobbing could be heard.

Justice Suche declined a request from the defence to poll the individual jurors as to the unanimity of their decision.

It’s in her discretion to do so, and she stated she had no reason to question the verdict.

The decision sparked a short exchange between her and John McAmmond (Richard’s lawyer), who seemed adamant to put the discomfort of the two jurors on the record.

Just moments before the jury portion of the trial got underway roughly two weeks ago, the defence rose to raise a point.

Radocaj’s mother had come to court wearing a photo of her son and either a shirt or a sign stating “Justice for Ivan.”

Suche ordered her to cover it up prior to the jury seeing it, deeming it prejudicial.

I point readers of this blog to this curious story I wrote regarding the case dating back to May 2009.

Even at that time, Sanford was ready to accept responsibility for the conspiracy, possibly explaining the resigned expression she wore during much of the trial that I was able to witness.

From what ever could tell, no abuse of process argument went forward from her lawyers, or it was done in the background.

But we’ll never know what piece of evidence came in that changed the Crown’s position to charge her with the actual killing more than a year after the conspiracy charge was laid.

There are two other accused in the case that have yet to deal with their charges.

-30-

R. v Sanford, Cushnie and Richard – Trial notebook pt. 1

Obviously, I can’t be in court for every moment of testimony in this serious case, but will update this notebook as I go.

For those not in the know: Ivan Radocaj, 43, was killed in his isolated home near Inwood, Manitoba in September 2007. While he wasn’t found until the 14th of the month, police allege he was killed two days prior. Radocaj was a 6′ 8″ tall man who was well-known as a pro wrestler some years ago under the names “The Croatian Giant” or Big John Radocaj. I have no picture to offer of the man, but if there’s one out there, please send it my way.

In 2008: RCMP came forward with charges against his ex-wife, Melody Sanford, 47. Later, others, including Rita Cushnie, 57, and Donald Richard, 35, were authorized. Sanford and Cushnie are friends. Richard is Cushnie’s son.

Chris Houle and Dan Richard are dealing with their charges in separate proceedings, jurors were told.

Sanford, Cushnie and Richard pleaded not guilty today in front of a six-man, six-woman jury to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. They are presumed innocent.

Notes to supplement mainstream media accounts: (Here, here and here)

The jurors hearing the case appear to skew younger than many panels I’ve seen. Many appear to be in their early 30’s, some younger. When they were handed autopsy and crime scene photo booklets today, I watched them for any reaction. To be honest, they betrayed no overt responses.

The QB judge presiding over the case is Justice Colleen Suche.

Crown Attorneys Mark Kantor and Brian Bell — Bell being fresh off the Mark Grant trial from earlier in the year — are the prosecutors.

Ryan Amy is acting for Sanford, John McAmmond for Richard and Mike Cook for Cushnie. All experienced criminal defence lawyers.

Mark Kantor delivered the Crown’s opening to the jury, it was measured and largely dispassionate in simply noting how the progression of witnesses will go [more on this below].

However, his and Bell’s styles are very different and Kantor is certainly more animated than his counterpart. It’s a similar pairing as was in the Grant prosecution, where Mike Himmelman was the one delivering the opening – pointing red-faced at the prisoner’s dock saying the jury would have no trouble finding Grant guilty of murder. In the end, jurors did, but of second, not first-degree.

The prosecution witnesses:

  1. Dr. John Younes, a pathologist who conducted the autopsy in the case.
  2. Cpl. David Chalmers, an RCMP forensic identification officer; expected to testify about notebooks he was given that contained diagrams of Radocaj’s home and a fingerprint belonging to Sanford.
  3. A friend of Radoaj who found his body on Sept. 14, 2007.
  4. A friend of Sanford’s who the Crown says is expected to testify about comments allegedly made on her wedding day where she expressed reluctance to get married.
  5. Another friend of Sanfords who is expected to testify Sanford allegedly made comments about “hiring a hitman.”
  6. Sanford’s daughter, who is expected to testify about the relationship about Sanford and Radocaj.
  7. Tim Richard, Donald’s cousin: is expected to testify he attended a number of meetings where the conspiracy was discussed; that Sanford allegedly got Radocaj out of his house to go to dinner while three others would go there and lay in wait for him to return. The cousin is expected to tell jurors he drove the getaway car and saw the alleged attackers leave with a TV set.
  8. An associate of Richards, expected to testify that he made comments regarding his involvement in the crime.
  9. An RCMP analyst to speak about phone records seized regarding the time frame of 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the date police say Radocaj died.
  10. Melody Sanford’s statement to police.
  11. Donald Richard’s statement to police.

First in the witness stand was Dr. Younes, who testified about the injuries Radocaj had sustained. As an aside, according to Younes, Radocaj suffered from “fairly advanced” emphysema. At the time he died, he was wearing jeans from which a pack of smokes was found and “light weather” clothing.

Younes stated of the eight head injuries he found, five he’d consider to be “major” or “significant.” These included a 14×9 cm abrasion to the right side of Radocaj’s face and a “penetrating injury” to his right forehead, described by him as “a very powerful blow inflicted with a weapon of some kind.” There was another large injury on the top of his head and the large man suffered a “shattered” brain base.

As Younes described the injuries, Sanford sat with her head cradled in one hand, her reddish hair covering her face as to make her reaction unknown. Richard stared straight ahead, as did Cushnie.

Radocaj had what Younes suggested could be defensive wounds on his left arm and wrist, as if he had tried to shield himself from blows.

The weapon used, said Younes, was a “bar of some kind,” not likely a bat because there would be more bruising.

Second on the stand was Cpl. Chalmers, who was called to the crime scene to photograph it on the date Radocaj was found. 27 photos were presented to the jury, four of them Chalmers didn’t take himself.

Key points of his testimony were that an entrance door to Radocaj’s home appeared to have been “forced inward from the outside,” but he could find no tool marks to indicate it had been pried open.

Radocaj was found face up in a cluttered area of the home, which was disheveled in parts. In the bedroom, the posters from the bed had been knocked to the floor, and the mattress was out of place.

Photos 23 and 23a were taken after the crime scene investigation, they are of notebooks given to him on March 6, 2008.

Fingerprints belonging to a Tim Richard were found inside, along with one of Sanford’s when he compared them to RCMP records, he testified.

Jurors have been told to expect three weeks of testimony.

Radocaj’s parents and other supporters were present in court today.

More to come.

-30-