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Joseph Sutherland, 62, was identified and caught in the murders of Erin Gilmour, left, and Susan Tice, right, after police used new DNA investigation techniques to solve the 40-year-old cases.Supplied

A man who escaped police scrutiny for nearly 40 years after he murdered two Toronto women says he has almost no recollection of his crimes. But he argues that the trial judge should give him some sentencing leeway to reflect the childhood trauma he suffered as an Indigenous boy forced to attend residential school.

Joseph George Sutherland says he has forgotten almost everything about the 1983 murders of Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour. “My mind erased it,” he said, according to a document filed by the defence known as a Gladue report, which could be considered in the sentence to be delivered March 22.

Mr. Sutherland, 62, was identified and caught for his decades-old crimes only after police used new DNA investigation techniques to reboot a stalled murder investigation. In 2022, Mr. Sutherland confessed when he was finally confronted about the home invasion murders.

Mr. Sutherland is facing a mandatory life sentence, but a judge is considering whether he should be given parole after 20 years, as the Crown has suggested, or after only 18 years. Earlier this week, he begged Ontario Superior Court Justice Maureen Forestell for clemency as he apologized in court to relatives of the two women he raped and stabbed. The relatives responded with evocative victim-impact statements, urging the judge to keep Mr. Sutherland in prison until he dies.

Better DNA access would have helped solve 1983 murders of two Toronto women, police say

Gladue reports are common in Canada’s courts. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada decided a case by that name and required lower courts to see crimes in the context of colonialism, and use alternatives to incarceration to try to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous offenders in the correctional system.

The 1999 ruling came with an important caveat: In sentencings for heinous crimes, judges are not to give Indigenous offenders any more leeway than other offenders.

Regardless, Mr. Sutherland’s defence lawyer has filed a Gladue report that pleads for leniency by drawing from eight in-jail interviews he gave to a caseworker from Toronto’s Aboriginal Legal Services after his guilty plea last October.

Mr. Sutherland was born in Fort Albany, Ont., a fly-in Cree community on James Bay, on Dec. 17, 1961. When his father died, he was seven years old and made to attend the Sisters of St. Anne’s residential school. “The nuns came and convinced my mom that they could raise me better than her,” he told his interviewer.

Since St. Anne’s was shuttered in 1976, several staff members have been charged by police with abusing the students – including a 97-year-old former nun arrested just last year.

The Gladue report said Mr. Sutherland’s experience there shattered his familial and community bonds. He only spoke Cree when he started at the school but was made to speak only English, and an unnamed gym teacher used to call over young students and choke them.

“We’d turn around and he’d hold his hand over our mouth and nose until we blacked out,” Mr. Sutherland told his interviewer. The report said that Mr. Sutherland now wonders whether “being routinely suffocated affected his brain development.”

He told his interviewer he was sexually abused by a relative when he returned to his home community during his first summer back from St. Anne’s. “He never told anyone,” the report says.

Mr. Sutherland left St. Anne’s when he was around 10 or 11 years old, dropped out of school in Grade 8 and started drinking not long after. Severe alcoholism was a problem in the family, the report says.

Mr. Sutherland quit drinking a decade later. But before then he bounced between Northern and Southern Ontario, and in 1983, he was in his early 20s and living alone in a Toronto bachelor apartment.

That August, he broke into the house of Ms. Tice, stabbing the 45-year-old mother of four 13 times as he raped her. That December, days after he turned 22, he broke into the home of 22-year-old Ms. Gilmour, binding her hands and slaying her with another bladed weapon.

The Gladue report says that Mr. Sutherland recollects very little about all this.

“My mind erased it because my mind broke,” he told his interviewer, adding that “you can’t feel something if you don’t remember it.”

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