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Appeal Court reserves judgment on Graham James sentence

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Manitoba’s highest court has reserved judgment on whether to increase the sentence given to convicted sex abuser Graham James.

Crown and defence lawyers appeared before the Court of Appeal Monday morning to argue the fate of the notorious former junior hockey coach.

Prosecutor Liz Thomson says the two-year penalty James received for sexually assaulting two of former players on hundreds of occasions between 1983 and 1994 was not nearly enough. She is arguing for a six-year sentence, saying it’s the only way to express society’s condemnation for such a crime.

But defence lawyer Evan Roitenberg urged the three-justice panel not to interfere, saying James is a changed man who has earned a second chance. He said the fact James has gone nearly two decades since he offended without re-arrest shows he is no longer a public danger.

"There is proven rehabilitation here," said Roitenberg.

James, 59, pleaded guilty earlier this year to abusing Theoren Fleury and Todd Holt while coaching them during the 1980s and early '90s in the Western Hockey League. Fleury went on to become a star in the National Hockey League.

"What occurred here was incredibly egregious," Appeal Court Justice Alan MacInnes said Monday. "He was not just their guardian. He controlled their futures. He effectively destroyed them by his conduct."

At his sentencing hearing earlier this year, Crown attorney Colleen McDuff told court James specifically targeted players for abuse, even making trades in the Western Hockey League "for players he thought were good-looking."

"There was a buildup of their hopes and dreams, then a breakdown of these victims to ensure compliance. Graham James dangled a carrot... that virtually every boy playing hockey in Canada would aspire to. He abused that trust horribly," McDuff said.

In their notice of appeal, the Crown argued provincial court Judge Catherine Carlson erred in her approach to the sentence, overemphasized the significance of prior sentences for similar offences and erred in assessing the "totality principle." That principle holds that jail time for multiple offences must still be fair and reasonable when added together.

James was previously sentenced in 1997 to three-and-a-half years behind bars for attacks against three other former junior players around the same time as the ones which happened to Fleury and Holt. However, both those victims waited until years after the fact to come forward to police.

James received a controversial pardon in 2007 for his earlier set of offences, but it was revoked after his most recent arrest. The Conservative government has since revamped the pardon system, particularly for convicted sex offenders such as James.

James became eligible for day parole in September after serving six months of his sentence. He became eligible for full parole when he served one-third of his sentence by late November. However, the National Parole Board says it has not received any applications from him. If the Crown is not successful in its appeal, James is eligible for statutory release next July.

James's sentence sparked outrage from many, including his victims. Fleury and Holt called the sentence a "national travesty." He remains in custody and did not personally appear at Monday’s appeal.

The high court has given no indication of when they will be ready with their decision.


Updated on Monday, December 3, 2012 at 12:47 PM CST: Photo added

12:50 PM: update

1:47 PM: story updated

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