An Edmonton judge found five sexual assaults committed by Matthew McKnight would be worth 16½ years in prison – but reduced that by more than half taking into account factors including an assault he suffered in custody, his “lifestyle changes,” and his potential for rehabilitation. The bulk of the reduction came from totality, the principle that overall sentences for multiple offences should not be excessive.
“I am persuaded that he has excellent chances to rehabilitate,” Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Doreen Sulyma said, in sentencing Mr. McKnight to a total of eight years in prison.
As she announced the sentence, one of the many young women watching the proceedings lunged toward the defence table, flipping a computer monitor to the ground. As sheriffs surrounded her and removed her from the courtroom, the woman screamed: “I was 17 years old! I was 17 years old!”
Other women in the courtroom wept and shouted, calling the judge a “misogynist” and a “sympathizer,” and shouting at Mr. McKnight as courthouse security officers streamed into the room, and Justice Sulyma cleared court.
It was an emotional end to one of the city’s longest criminal trials in recent memory, and what would be one of the first major criminal court cases of the #MeToo era in Canada.
Mr. McKnight, now 33, was at one point facing 26 charges of sexual assault against 21 women, but had gone to trial last fall on 13 counts of sexual assault, and was convicted by a jury in January of five charges.
Mr. McKnight was a well-known bar promoter and co-owner of country party bar Knoxville’s when he was charged in 2016. During the trial, court heard he had been a powerful figure in the Edmonton bar scene, known for his outlandish outfits, generous free drinks and frequent after-parties. The women who testified told court about nights in which they accepted drinks from Mr. McKnight, then woke from long periods of blackouts to Mr. McKnight sexually assaulting them. They testified about being unable to move, being scared for their lives, and in some cases, getting sick and vomiting.
The first three women came forward in 2016, and the others followed after news of those charges became public. The oldest allegation dated back to 2010.
The Crown had been asking for a sentence of 22½ years, while the defence was arguing for five to nine years.
In her decision, Justice Sulyma said she did not find drugging in any of the cases, but did find some aggravating factors, including that Mr. McKnight refused to wear a condom, and that one of the victims had bruises that she said “reflects a violence in the exchange.”
But Justice Sulyma said other aspects of his behaviour during the assaults – like Mr. McKnight telling one woman the rape was her fault because “only whores work at Knoxville’s” – were not aggravating.
She gave Mr. McKnight a 40 per cent reduction in the sentence for totality, on the grounds that a 16.5 year term would be “disproportionate.” She then reduced the sentence one year for a beating he suffered from another inmate after his arrest in 2016, and then a further year based on his prospects of rehabilitation and “lifestyle changes,” which court heard include that he stopped drinking and has not had sexual relations with any women since his arrest.
“I am also of the view that he is well aware that this is no longer an issue of lifestyle,” she said.
Federal offenders in Canada are typically eligible for parole after serving a third of their sentence.
As she read her decision, a number of young women who had been involved with the case stood up and moved to the front of the spectator area where they stood holding hands. Their faces were hidden by masks, some stitched with a handprint over the mouth.
Among them were women Mr. McKnight was convicted of assaulting, women he was found not guilty of assaulting, and others, whose charges never proceeded to trial.
Mr. McKnight, who had wiped away a tear reading a statement to the court last week in which he expressed remorse but did not admit guilt, appeared emotionless. After the sentencing, he was taken into custody.
Meanwhile, the women gathered in the hallway, watched closely by a contingent of sheriffs.
“Sixteen-and-a-half years sounded good, I was OK with that. And then she just kept lowering and lowering and lowering it,” said one of the victims. She was trembling, and had to sit on the floor to speak. In her victim impact statement, she had described the profound effects of the assault on her relationships, career and mental health.
“I feel that the justice system has failed every single female that has suffered any kind of sexual assault,” she said.
The identities of the women involved in the case are protected by a court-ordered publication ban.
Outside court, defence lawyer Dino Bottos said he hadn’t spoken to his client, but said, “He would have been satisfied with the sentence.”
Mr. Bottos said he, too, felt “very good about the sentence,” and also the judge’s finding that the rapes were not a systemic attack, “but rather five separate, independent sexual assaults.”
During the trial, Mr. McKnight testified to having slept with 200 to 300 women in a six-year period, and said the women who came forward accusing him of rape were all either mistaken or lying about their experiences with him.
Mr. McKnight had no previous convictions, and Mr. Bottos had argued his client’s prospects for rehabilitation were good because he is intelligent, comes from a good family and has good family supports. His father has offered him a job with his investment company when he is released from prison.
Mr. Bottos added that in terms of the sentence, “The masses and the bloodthirsty will never be satisfied.”
While he spoke, some of the women involved in the case walked by reporters and gave him the finger.
Crown prosecutor Mark Huyser-Wierenga, however, said the judgement, “is what it is,” and that the Crown will be considering an appeal.
He noted that critics of the court system have said it needs to do better in dealing with allegations of sexual violence, and asked the rhetorical question: “A sentence of eight years for someone who is appropriately classified as a serial rapist, is that adequate?”
“Sexual violence is way too prevalent, and myths and stereotypes about what a sexual offender looks like are still troubling to the criminal justice system,” he said.
Asked if the women in the case got justice, Mr. Huyser-Wierenga said that was a question for them. But, he added: “It raises some deeper questions, I guess, about what is justice.”
Speaking to the media outside court, the first woman who came forward in 2016 – and one of those whom Mr. McKnight was found not-guilty of assaulting – expressed disappointment in the verdict, but also said she was glad he’d been convicted at all.
“It is kind of a loss, but at the end of the day, we still did this together. It is still hard to put a rapist in jail for eight years…,” she said. “In the end, it’s slightly worth it knowing that we did it together and he’s still getting some time, because that’s hard to do… For the first time, now, we’re starting to have a voice.”
Another woman who Mr. McKnight was also found not-guilty of assaulting said she had prepared herself for a very low sentence, but questioned what effect the case could have on other victims, in other cases.
“Who is going to come forward now?” she asked. “Who is going to come forward now?”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.