A young mother enters the Real Canadian Superstore in Courtenay.
She pushes her three-year-old daughter in a stroller through aisles offering a cornucopia of goods. She stops. She gathers Blu-ray DVDs. "I didn't even look at them when I grabbed them," she says later. She slips them under a baby blanket in the stroller.
She gets as far as the store's doors before being stopped.
Three months later, she is on the telephone, her child heard playing happily with her husband in the background, trying to explain the inexplicable.
"It was just a bad decision," the mother said. "That's not me. That's not my character. I'm just, like, so ashamed. I'm just embarrassed. It's not something I want people to know about me. It's not who I am." She repeated a verdict with which no one will disagree: "I just made a bad decision."
It was the 24-year-old mother's good fortune to appear before a judge whose sense of mercy was tempered in the courts of apartheid-era South Africa.
Justine Saunders, a Provincial Court judge who was appointed to the bench in 1997, studied law at Rhodes University at Grahamstown, South Africa. She moved to Vancouver in 1987 and was called to the bar five years later after completing her foreign law accreditation at the University of British Columbia. She has also achieved a masters and doctorate from the Fielding Institute (now Fielding Graduate University) at Santa Barbara, Calif.
At a public forum four years ago, she recounted the experience of defending black clients during the apartheid years. According to an account published in the Benchers' Bulletin, a newsletter of the Law Society of B.C., her first client to receive a death sentence was a 16-year-old youth with a child's IQ.
"The first thing he said to me was, 'Why have they weighed and measured me?' "
She told the gathering that she didn't answer his question. She "didn't have the heart to tell him that they had to find out his weight so when the rope was put around his neck and the trapdoor fell they would know it was going to make a clean break and kill him."
Months later, every appeal having failed, she received a telephone call "at dawn, because they hang them at dawn, and I was told by the prison officials, 'We've just hanged your little man.' "
On the bench, Judge Saunders has faced plenty of wayward youths and not a few misbehaving adults. Sometimes, the cases wind up as short stories in the newspaper. "I can't put you in jail today," she told one youth facing a count of theft and breach of probation, "but if you come back, I will."
Another youth got 18 months of probation for a string of property crimes committed after his mother urged him to "earn his keep." One of the conditions was to stay away from his Fagin-like parent.
On occasion, Judge Saunders also presides over happier events. She has sworn in the Port Alberni council and she has presided over a mock trial featuring the Three Little Pigs at a Law Day open house in Nanaimo.
The shoplifting mother received stern words from the judge, according to an account in the Comox Valley Echo.
"This is your last chance," the judge told the mother. "Using your child to do this is, I think, something shameful. You're still a very young woman. You need to smarten up."
The woman received a conditional discharge. She is on probation for one year and must complete 30 hours of community service.
"I was thankful that she gave me a second chance," the mother said. "I couldn't have asked for anything more from her. She had a few things to say to me. I deserved it. I tried my best to not start bawling my eyes out in there. My voice was cracking. I just apologized to the court. I'll be able to not get a criminal record and still be able to have a career and put it all behind me. Which is what I really want to do."
A shoplifting charge is a minor case, one that does not usually get coverage in even the smallest newspapers. But having her daughter with her was a detail too interesting to resist.
"Thieving mom gets a break," reported the Echo. The story was republished online by dailies in Victoria and Vancouver. "Judge gives a break to mother who used infant as a foil," headlined one. Yahoo News carried an item.
The mother is mortified to see her name in print. She did not welcome a call from The Globe. She does not even own a Blu-ray DVD player.
The judge agreed to a conditional discharge because the mother wants to return to school. "Why do I want to be a nurse?" she said. "I enjoy helping people. I was really close to a friend of mine, an older lady. While she was dying I spent a lot of time with her at the hospital. I was by her side. It influenced me to want to help people.
"Her name was Sharon. She was born in 1948. She passed away this year."
In a year so far filled with bad news, a wise judge gave a repentant young woman a do-over, a second chance, a mulligan.
Camille Farrell has enrolled at North Island College and will be back in the classroom in September. One bad decision has been answered by two good ones.
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