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Too quick to judge

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The justice system isn't perfect. Far from it.

And anyone who reads my columns in the Winnipeg Free Press, checks out these blogs, visits my website at www.mikeoncrime.com or listens to my national "Crime and Punishment" radio show would know that I feel very strongly about the need for justice reform.

I'm often very critical of what goes down in our courts, and many of the things I see leave me confused and even angry, on occassion.

However, I also feel strongly that the system - and its participants - are often unfairly targeted and blamed for things well beyond its control.

A couple of recent "knee-jerk" examples that have me scratching my head.

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I read the other day, in an opinion piece in another media, how the appointment of Chief Judge Ray Wyant to preside over the Brian Sinclair inquest is cause for concern.

The author's main beef, it would appear, was the fact Wyant was the judge in the very controversial Taman case that saw him agree to a joint-recommendation from Crown and defence lawyers and give former Winnipeg cop Derek Harvey-Zenk a conditional sentence.

To quote the writer directly - "Wyant is the same judge who let former Winnipeg cop Derek Harvey-Zenk off scot-free after he killed Crystal Taman when he slammed his car into hers."

Excuse me???

Think what you want about Harvey-Zenk, but he certainly did not get off "scot-free."

He got a two year-less-a-day conditional sentence - the maximum allowed by law - which included an absolute curfew. He must serve every single day of that sentence. Unlike a jail sentence of two years, in which Harvey-Zenk would likely be released after eight months (one-third), there is no time off for a good behaviour.

I'm not defending the sentence. In fact, I'm on record as supporting mandatory jail for anyone who kills in a driving-related offence, such as this.

But I'm also not delusional and believe a conditional sentence is the same as getting away scot-free.

Harvey-Zenk lost his job with the police service. He will always have a criminal record. Travel outside of Canada will likely be very difficult. He will always be known as a killer. And he must live every day with what he did.

"Scot-free" would be walking away with an outright acquittal, or getting a discharge that means you have no criminal record, no punishment, etc.

And, for the record, Wyant's approval of the joint-recommendation fell in line with a pile of similar sentences given out in similar (and in some cases even more serious) offences. He certainly didn't make any new law here. He simply followed the law as he was supposed to, especially when presented with a plea bargain from two experienced lawyers, as was the case here.

We know the Taman case was fraught with errors - and, in fact, it was Wyant's figurative holding of his nose at this case that triggered a public inquest and helped expose much of what went wrong.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I happen to know and respect Chief Judge Wyant very well. He appears monthly on my radio show and takes unedited, unscreened live phone-in calls from listeners across Canada. How many other judges in this country would open themselves up to that kind of process? I'll tell you - pretty much none.

But this has nothing to do with Wyant, and everything to do with fostering what I believe is an often ill-informed view of the justice system. And, as a member of the media, I realize my occupation means that things I write and say often help shape that public perception, which is why I'm using this forum to raise these concerns.

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I felt a similar reaction this past weekend as e-mails began pouring in which reacted to my exclusive Free Press story about the fact Greyhound Bus killer Vince Li was likely going to a mental health facility, and not prison, because doctors had found he was suffering a major mental illness at the time and can't be held criminally responsible.

Predictably, people were upset. And I understand that. But I think it's also important to remember that, contrary to what some readers apparently think, Li is going to suffer major consequences regardless of how his trial ends next month.

Case in point:

"I read your article in the Free Press and I was shocked to read that they were thinking of letting Li off for the murder of Tim McLean.  I am a mother of two men the same age as Tim,one that worked for the Ex and had planned to travel with them as Tim did.  It could hae been him on that bus.  What is the crown and the defense thinking....Do they not have children of their own? What if it was one of theirs and not Tim???? How would they feel? Would they be so ready to release that monster back into society if it had been?  I really do not think so! They call this Justice."
and...

"Hey Mike, what the hell is this about Li not being responsible for killing Tim McLean? Who was the genius that determined that this man should be set free because he was suffering from a mental illness? I would really like to meet them and ask them what they would do if it had been one of their children or a close family member on that bus that day. The mother of the victim is clearly beside herself, and who can blame her. To her and the McLeans, my condolenses. To Li, I have nothing but disrespect and a burning desire for justice. It seems that Li has gotten away with murder. He has been treated and let back into society with no major consequenses."

To clarify - whether Li is found NCR or not, he is not getting away with anything. Nor is he going to be back out on the streets next month. He is likely going to be locked up for a very long time - possibly longer in a mental health facility than what he would be if sentenced to prison.

Don't forget, if Li is found criminally responsible for the charge of 2nd degree murder, he could be parole eligible in as few as 10 years from the day of his arrest.

We know our communities are filled with people out on parole. I'm not sure the same came be said of mentally ill individuals who have committed the most heinous crimes known to man, such as murder.

And put it this way - if we operate on the assumption that someday, Li will return to the community (whether its through parole in prison, or through a mental health release), wouldn't you feel a little safer knowing that people who specialize in major mental illness have actually had the time to work closely with Li to hopefully get a handle on what happened?

I certainly would prefer that scenario, as oppossed to one that sees Li sent to prison, rot in a cell for a decade or more without much in the way of treatment, exercise his democratic right to apply for parole and then return to the streets- likely still as messed up as when he went in, possibly worse based on what he experiences behind bars.

Also, there is no point in blaming the Crown here, as one of the writers above did. They are simply doing their job -  presenting the evidence they have. If their own medical expert happens to feel Li is NCR, I'm not sure what members of the public would like them to do about that? Should they dismiss the opinion and go "doctor shopping", hoping they can find someone who might come to a different conclusion?

Once again, I'm not trying to tell anyone they don't have a right to be upset about what's happened here. As someone who has spent time interviewing the McLean family, sitting in court and hearing the surreal facts of this case, I can vouch for the fact is is deeply upsetting.

But at the end of the day, we have to face the reality of what our system is. Li can't be put to death, because there is no such penalty in Canada. Li can't be ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison or hospital without a shot at release, because there is no sentence in Canada.

I'll let Meghan, another one of the many e-mailers, have the last word.

"The details/evidence will play itself out in court. He will go to a mental health facility and he will eventually be allowed into the community - probably under 'supervision'. What he did was horrible - YES. But no sane person could have been capable of doing what he did. He needs help and is apparently responding to treatment already. The public needs to come to grips with the reality of this case. There will be no other result."

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About Mike McIntyre

Journalist, national radio show host, author, pundit and cruise director ... Mike McIntyre loves to keep busy.

Mike is the justice reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, where he has worked since 1997. He produces and hosts the weekly talk radio show Crime and Punishment, which runs on the Corus Radio Network in several Canadian cities.

Born and bred in Winnipeg, Mike graduated from River East Collegiate and completed his journalism studies in the Creative Communications program at Red River College.

He and his wife, Chassity, have two children.

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