Lawyers for a man who was high on meth when he ran over and killed 15-year-old Ben Harris in a stolen truck urged a judge Thursday not to ignore the role drug addiction played in the tragedy.
"Science says it is a disease," said Justin Little’s lawyer, Evan Roitenberg. "Society says it’s a disease until it isn’t convenient to do so."
Roitenberg’s comments were in answer to a submission by Crown attorney Manoja Moorthy on Wednesday that Little had made no committed effort to kick his addiction prior to his August 2018 arrest.
"It often takes more than one attempt to get clean, to reach any level of success. It’s not just a matter of willpower... It’s not just mind over matter," Roitenberg said.
Roitenberg’s submission aroused loud muttering in a court gallery full of Ben’s family and friends, prompting two admonitions from provincial court Judge Sid Lerner.
Ben Harris died after Little, high on meth and behind the wheel of a stolen truck, ran over him on a quiet St. Andrews road, late Aug. 10, 2018. Ben and another teen, who was also struck by Little but survived, were biking home from a friend’s house.
Little, 30, pleaded guilty in November to impaired driving causing death, impaired driving causing bodily harm and two counts of leaving the scene of an accident.
At the time of the crash, Little was the subject of two arrest warrants in Alberta. He had been released on bail 12 days earlier in Winnipeg after being arrested for stealing a car. He was also disqualified from driving and was under a recognizance to abstain from drugs and alcohol, and obey a curfew.
Roitenberg recommended Little be sentenced to 4 1/2 years in custody, a sentence that, with credit for time served, would allow him to spend the remaining two years in Headingley Correctional Centre, where he has started an intensive drug rehabilitation program. The Crown has recommended Little be sentenced to seven years.
"Justin is very proud of the work he has done (in jail)," Roitenberg said. "He didn’t go into custody saying ‘Woe is me.’ He went with an eye to change… and is continuing on that path."
Little was born in Nova Scotia to a teen mother with addiction issues of her own and was sexually abused by a babysitter at age two, prompting a move to Alberta in hopes of a better life, Roitenberg said.
Little spent much of his youth in foster care, during which time he began abusing alcohol and drugs, culminating with an addiction to meth, his lawyer said.
"His mother was taken away, his father didn’t want him and he gave up," Roitenberg said.
Little later cleaned up for a time, met a woman and had a son. When the woman later left him, taking their son, he relapsed.
Two days before Ben was killed, Little, high on meth, stole a truck and painted it, with the goal of driving to Alberta to see his son, Roitenberg said.
"He was pretty far gone. This was where his head was at," he said.
So high on meth was Little at the time of the crash, he didn’t know when arrested if he had run over Ben and the other teen, Roitenberg said.
Confronted months later with DNA evidence pointing to his guilt, Little "instantly started to cry," Roitenberg said. "He said, ‘If I did this, I am taking responsibility for this.’"
Little offered a brief apology in court, but Ben’s parents John and Brenda and sisters Hannah and Stephanie walked out, not wanting to hear it.
"I do realize no one really wants to hear me speak right now, but I am truly, truly sorry for what happened," Little said.
John said later family members did not believe Little was truly remorseful.
"If you are going to own it, take the seven years," he said during a break in proceedings.
Lerner is expected to deliver his decision next month.