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Anger greets two-year sentence for Graham James

Graham James, accused sex offender, arrives at court on March 20, 2012, in Winnipeg for sentencing.


The handcuffs had barely been snapped on the wrists of Graham James when the outrage started.

"Yeah," a man shouted from the back of the court room and then swore at Mr. James as he was led out by a sheriff. Sitting nearby, one of Mr. James's victims, Greg Gilhooly, shook his head and said: "This isn't justice."

For more than an hour, Manitoba Provincial Court Judge Catherine Carlson had read aloud a 30-page decision that explained why she sentenced Mr. James to two years in prison for sexually assaulting two hockey players he coached nearly 20 years ago. The players, Todd Holt and his cousin, former NHLer Theo Fleury, were vulnerable teenagers who endured years of abuse from Mr. James, the judge said. "He controlled what would happen with their hopes and dreams of playing professional hockey," the judge said. "He could make or break them. He told them that."

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That tight control enabled Mr. James to take advantage of them. "Mr. James could essentially do what he wanted to do to them, and could rely on their compliance and silence, because he controlled whether they would get the chance at what they really wanted or would have their dreams crushed," she said.

But there were other factors to consider, Judge Carlson added. First, Mr. James was convicted in 1997 of assaulting two other players around the same time and received a 3½-year sentence. The charges involving Mr. Holt and Mr. Fleury came much later. If Mr. James had been tried in 1997 for all four assaults, he likely would have received about six years, the judge calculated. Furthermore, Mr. James had not re-offended since 1994. He had also received treatment, surrendered to police, pleaded guilty and apologized in court for the latest offences. He went through treatment, held a job and understood that what he did was wrong. Taken together, Judge Carlson said, two years was appropriate.

She also knew there would be anger. There is no sentence "that the victims, and indeed many members of the public, will find satisfactory," she said, noting that the maximum penalty is 10 years. "What happened to Mr. Fleury and Mr. Holt is every child's worst nightmare, and every parent's worst nightmare." But then she added: "It is trite, but important to note that the Canadian criminal justice system is not one of vengeance."

The anger came quickly. "This sentence today is nothing short of a national travesty," Mr. Holt and Mr. Fleury said in a statement after the ruling.

"The sentences don't come close to the damage that it leaves in its wake," added former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, also one of Mr. James's victims. "At least he's going back to jail."

Mr. Kennedy said he is convinced Mr. James had more than 100 other victims. And he lashed out at the court for putting so much faith in Mr. James's rehabilitation. "The thing that I have trouble with is 32 hours of rehabilitation is a joke," Mr. Kennedy said, referring to the treatment sessions Mr. James had in jail. "It's been a lifetime of working and rehabilitating with counsellors and two hour sessions a week to just stay on track myself after the damage that Graham has inflicted. So to sit in there and hear that Graham James is rehabilitated really drives me nuts."

Mr. Gilhooly added: "Sheldon and I have each been in therapy longer than Graham will have been consecutively in jail." As for Mr. James's apology, Mr. Gilhooly dismissed it curtly. "He's a monster, he is who is he is. His words mean nothing," he said.

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"Of course, two years is not enough," added Rosalind Prober, co-founder of Beyond Borders, a Winnipeg-based charitable organization that advocates for sexually abused children. "The problem, of course, is that the bar is set so low in the courts on sentencing of sex offences." She also dismissed Mr. James's rehabilitation, calling his claims that he finally understood his wrongdoing "absolutely silly."

Evan Roitenberg, Mr. James's lawyer, said he understood the raw emotion of his client's victims. But he said others have mischaracterized facts by labelling Mr. James a monster who will continue to victimize. "Well, he's not a monster and he hasn't victimized anybody for 16 years," Mr. Roitenberg said. He called the ruling fair and said Judge Carlson had a horrible task "to try to look to do what's right in the face of public opinion that is so strong on one side."

As for Mr. James, Mr. Roitenberg said he was pleased and recognized this was the likely outcome. "I think Graham was looking forward to today because it was going to be the close of this chapter," he said. "I think he knows that Judge Carlson has dealt with him fairly and with respect."

In an interview, Mr. Holt said he also felt sorry for the judge and added that even if Mr. James got 15 years, it probably wouldn't have been enough for him and other victims. But he said he wasn't going to dwell on the case any more. "I feel like another weight has been lifted," he said of the sentencing. "I feel I'm in a good place."

By the numbers


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Years in prison to which Graham James was sentenced by Manitoba Provincial Court Judge Catherine Carlson for sexually assaulting Theoren Fleury and Todd Holt


Years sought by the Crown


Months, in a conditional sentence, sought by Mr. James's lawyer


Maximum years possible

Years to which Mr. James was sentenced in 1997 for sexually assaulting two other former hockey players, one of whom was ex-NHLer Sheldon Kennedy


Months Mr. Graham served of the 3½ years before being released on parole.

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