Her 20-year-old son was dead – stabbed over and over with a pocket knife. Now, the prosecutor wished to see her about a deal with the 18-year-old accused killer.
Instead of being put on trial for second-degree murder, he would plead guilty to manslaughter and receive a 10-year sentence.
Five years later, she says she still has not recovered from the killing or how the justice system treated her.
The role of victims and their loved ones in plea bargains, and throughout the justice process, is likely to be in for an overhaul this week, when Justice Minister Peter MacKay introduces a Victims Bill of Rights. Mr. MacKay says it will put victims “at the heart” of the justice system. It will ensure them a more effective voice at every step, he said, including plea bargains.
Whether the bill would create new rights and ways to enforce them, or simply add a new set of vague principles, is still unclear.
But from a government that created the Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, that is making even the most impoverished offenders pay a surcharge for victims’ services, and that regularly passes tough-on-crime laws in the name of victims, Mr. MacKay’s promises have raised expectations among victims.
Plea bargains are a contentious area for victims. S., the mother of the slain 20-year-old (her full name isn’t being used so she may speak frankly), said she told the prosecutor, James Vincelli, she could not abide the plea bargain.
“I want you to let him go then,” she said. “He’s a murderer. Let the murderer go. Don’t charge him with manslaughter because his whole life is going to be, ‘Oh, you poor guy, you were put in a position where you had to take a man’s life.’ I would rather him be out walking the street than put in jail for manslaughter.”
But the plea bargain went through – and the judge was never told S. was opposed, a court transcript shows. Mr. Vincelli declined to be interviewed.
Mr. MacKay’s promises to victims have fuelled concerns, not only from an expected place – criminal defence lawyers – but from a psychologist who treats crime victims and their families and who worked with S.
“They’re misleading victims,” said Lori Triano-Antidormi of Hamilton, Ont. “They’re creating false hope and expectations.”
Dr. Triano-Antidormi is not just any psychotherapist. Her son Zachary was killed at 2½ by a deranged neighbour with a kitchen knife under a cape – stabbed 12 times. (Lucia Piovesan was found not criminally responsible because of her paranoid schizophrenia, and is still in custody 17 years later.)
“I was struck by the intensity of the grief,” Dr. Triano-Antidormi said.
As a victim in the justice system, she found herself angry at seemingly mundane matters – the prosecutor calling the defence lawyer “my friend.” Mostly, she felt ignored, except when a forensic psychiatrist sat down with her and her husband to explain the meaning of not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness. Still, she said a wonderful counsellor provided by the local police department’s victims’ services unit taught her to focus on herself and her healing rather than the trial. And she recovered. The conclusion she drew is that the more victims participate in the adversarial justice process, the more their recovery is at risk. The therapy she has done with crime victims reaffirmed her belief.
“We can’t change that everyone is entitled to a fair trial,” she said. “Victims don’t want to hear that. So why put them in that system? Why make it more of a fight? That just feeds their anger, and in the end, the anger doesn’t hurt anybody but them and their families.”
S. has not recovered. She used to hold two jobs; since her son was killed, she has not worked. “My son was the victim, I’m the aftermath. There’s so many things that the system does wrong that keep us very angry and in pain. Off-the-charts pain.”