Contempt sentence slashed after appeal by key witness
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A Winnipeg woman convicted of contempt of court after she tried to evade testifying at the trial of four murder suspects she helped police identify has had her 10-month jail sentence slashed in half by Manitoba’s highest court.
In September 2018, Sandra Lavallee was the lone witness to a group beating in a Pritchard Avenue drug house that claimed the life of 40-year-old Jason James.
Lavallee, who was addicted to drugs and often homeless, had been staying at the house for about a month at the time of the killing. Court has heard Lavallee was forced to clean up the blood from the killing scene and was assaulted and threatened with death if she disclosed what had happened.
Lavallee failed to attend court when a murder trial started in September 2020 for three men and one woman charged in James’ death and a warrant was issued for her arrest. The trial was delayed for several days before Lavallee was arrested on an unrelated matter, after which Lavallee testified.
A jury convicted two accused, Diamond Sky Caribou, 27, and Sarah Osbourne, 35, of manslaughter and a third, Gabriel Todd Mecas, of assault causing bodily harm. A fourth co-accused, Faron Alex Spence, was acquitted.
Jurors heard evidence at trial the attackers targeted James after he directed “an alleged personal slight” at Osborne.
When James arrived at the house, he was beaten and attacked with a bicycle chain before being taken screaming to the basement, where the assault continued and he was fatally stabbed.
Lavallee told her aunt about the attack that same day and the aunt contacted police, who went to the house and found James dead in the basement. Lavallee provided a police statement hours later.
“This case is distinct as (Lavallee) was the reason this crime was discovered. Because of this, she endured threats and physical harm,” Manitoba Court of Appeal Justice Lori Spivak wrote on behalf of the high court in a decision released last week.
“Even though she failed to respond to the subpoena and it was her arrest that resulted in her presence at the trial, she did testify… which led to the conviction of three of the co-accused,” Spivak said.
Lavallee pleaded guilty to contempt of court. In October 2021, she was sentenced by King’s Bench Justice Rick Saull to 10 months in jail.
The Manitoba Court of Appeal reduced the sentence to five months. Lavallee has already finished serving her original sentence.
According to a pre-sentence report prepared for court prior to her October 2021 sentencing, Lavallee, who is Indigenous, had an upbringing marked by abuse, neglect, addictions, and poverty.
Saull said Lavallee’s failure to attend court was “deliberate and intentional,” and that she was “forced into the witness box” after her arrest.
Saull said he accepted Lavallee feared for her safety, “but you have to bear in mind how the person ended up in a situation where she was dealing with those people.”
Spivak said the sentencing judge erred in his assessment of Lavallee’s moral culpability and “essentially considered that she was responsible for her misfortune in choosing to associate and live with the people who committed this homicide.”
“In doing so, he effectively negated the myriad of Gladue factors which informed how she ended up homeless, in a drug house and in contact with persons who engage in criminal behaviour,” she said.
In the Canadian criminal justice system, a judge must apply Gladue principles that consider the circumstances and experiences of Indigenous peoples.
The sentencing judge gave Lavallee no credit for her part in reporting the killing, under-emphasized the fear and harm she suffered as a result, and “effectively disregarded” her guilty plea, Spivak said.
“A guilty plea is a recognized mitigating factor and a failure to consider a guilty plea as mitigating constitutes an error in principle,” she said.
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.