Two men convicted of practising polygamy in British Columbia were motivated by “sincerely held religious beliefs,” but their sentences should include jail time to denounce their crimes and deter others, a special prosecutor said Tuesday.
Peter Wilson recommended Winston Blackmore serve between 90 days and six months in jail and James Oler one month to 90 days, telling Justice Sheri Ann Donegan of the B.C. Supreme Court: “They are both, by all accounts, law-abiding, hard-working citizens, honest men.”
There are only two other convictions for polygamy in Canadian history, but because those cases took place in 1899 and 1906 they do not help in determining sentences for Blackmore and Oler, he said.
Blackmore’s lawyer, Blair Suffredine, asked the judge to consider all possible sentences in the case, including an absolute discharge.
He said that would allow Blackmore to continue to work at his sawmill so he can support his family, and would not leave him with a criminal record, which could prevent visits to the U.S. where three of his wives live.
The convictions tell the community that polygamy is illegal and people who practice it may be prosecuted, Suffredine said.
“In my submission, that’s all that’s required here, is to tell the community, finally, that it’s not protected and you take the risk that you’ll be prosecuted,” he said.
Donegan reserved her decision and will set a sentencing date for sometime in the next six weeks on Friday.
She found Blackmore, 62, guilty last July of polygamy for marrying two dozen women, while Oler, 54, was found to have married five women.
The courtroom was packed for Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, mostly with members of Blackmore’s family. There were not enough seats to accommodate everyone and a video link was set up so the overflow crowd could watch the hearing from another courtroom.
During a break in the hearing, about three dozen of Blackmore’s children and wives stood together outside the courthouse holding signs that read: Families not felons and There is no cookie cutter for family.
The maximum sentence for polygamy under the Criminal Code is five years in prison.
Suffredine said the unusual circumstances of the case need to be taken into account, including decades of investigations and court proceedings, as well as Blackmore’s positive influence in the community and his religious beliefs.
“None of this was done with the intention of breaking the law. All of it was done through legitimate religious beliefs,” he argued.
Oler did not have legal representation in court, but lawyer Joe Doyle was appointed as an amicus curiae, a so-called friend of the court, to ensure a fair trial.
Doyle did not recommend a specific sentence but told the court Oler is hard working and imprisonment may not be necessary to deter and denounce polygamy.
“Clearly, those objectives can be met with other forms of sentences as well,” he said.
Both Blackmore and Oler have been leaders in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which condones plural marriage. They have both been part of the small community of Bountiful in southeastern B.C.
Suffredine had asked the court to stay the charges against his client after the guilty verdicts, arguing the law against polygamy infringed on Blackmore’s charter rights to religious freedom.
Donegan dismissed the arguments in March, saying Blackmore and Oler knew that entering into multiple marriages is illegal in Canada.
In 1991, the RCMP completed a 13-month investigation into Bountiful by recommending polygamy charges against Blackmore and another man, but B.C.’s attorney general decided not to lay charges because of uncertainty over religious freedoms under the Constitution.
The B.C. Supreme Court upheld the polygamy laws in a 2011 reference case, ruling that a section of the Criminal Code banning plural marriages is constitutional. The court’s chief justice said the harm against women and children outweighs concerns over protecting religious freedom.