December 10, 2019

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Former city police officer sentenced to 30 months for fatal hit, run

Details of an October 2017 fatal hit-and-run involving a Winnipeg police officer were revealed in court Wednesday. But one question still haunts the victim’s family: why did he leave Cody Severight dying on the street?

"My entire family has been destroyed by what you did to Cody," Severight's grandmother, Gloria Lebold, told former Winnipeg Police Service constable Justin Holz at a sentencing hearing, after he pleaded guilty to one count of dangerous driving causing death.

Cody Severight was struck by a vehicle around 8 p.m. while walking near the intersection of Main Street and Sutherland Avenue on Oct. 10, 2017.</p>

(FACEBOOK)

Cody Severight was struck by a vehicle around 8 p.m. while walking near the intersection of Main Street and Sutherland Avenue on Oct. 10, 2017.

"I still can’t believe you just drove away. You as a police officer should protect people, not hurt them… After this happened, I have no trust in the police."

Holz, 36, was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

"Cops are supposed to protect people, not leave them on the side of the road," Severight’s aunt, Nancy Gabriel, said in a victim-impact statement read by another family member.

"When I hear things about police offenders in the news, I think nothing will happen to them or that they will get away (with it)."

Holz, a police officer for eight years at the time of his arrest, offered a brief message of apology to Severight’s family before being taken out of court by sherriff’s officers to begin serving his sentence.

"I think about the accident every day," Holz said. "I know words can’t fix what happened, but I am truly sorry."

He had been set to stand trial in January. In a plea bargain, the Crown stayed additional charges, including failing to stop at the scene of a fatal accident and impaired driving causing death.

Holz had been drinking with co-workers at a downtown Winnipeg bar prior to hitting Severight as he was walking across Main Street at Sutherland Avenue at 8:03 p.m., Oct. 10, 2017, special prosecutor Bill Burge told court, reading from an agreed statement of facts.

Five seconds before the collision, Holz was travelling 92 km/h — 40 km/h above the posted speed limit.

According to a collision reconstructionist, Holz would have been travelling approximately 76-79 km/h at the time of impact, Burge said.

Police investigate the collision that killed Cody Severight on Main Street at Sutherland on October 10, 2017.

(JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

Police investigate the collision that killed Cody Severight on Main Street at Sutherland on October 10, 2017.

"The accused vehicle struck Mr. Severight and propelled him 16.14 metres, where he impacted a cement container on the sidewalk," Burge said. "He suffered blunt-force injuries, including a fractured skull and a broken neck that caused his death."

The driver's sightlines would have been obscured as he came up through the CPR underpass, just prior to the collision, Burge said.

"A clear line of sight would not be established until two seconds before the collision, at which point the vehicle was approximately 50 metres from Mr. Severight," Burge said.

"At the speed travelled, a normal, sober, alert, attentive driver would have needed approximately 80 metres of clear sightline in order to perceive a hazard and implement a collision-avoidance response."

Holz didn’t stop and continued driving north on Main Street at speeds reaching 129 km/h. Twelve minutes later, he called 911 and reported he had hit somebody.

Police detained Holz 15 minutes later, and did not initially notice any signs of impairment, Burge said. By 9 p.m., an officer noticed "a smell of alcohol" and Holz was arrested for impaired driving.

Holz provided a breath sample more than three hours later, which "established his blood alcohol level at the time… did not exceed the legal limit."

Gloria Lebold, grandmother to 23-year-old Cody Severight who was killed by former Winnipeg Police Constable Justin Holz, speaks to the media after Holz was sentenced to 30 months in jail Wednesday afternoon.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Gloria Lebold, grandmother to 23-year-old Cody Severight who was killed by former Winnipeg Police Constable Justin Holz, speaks to the media after Holz was sentenced to 30 months in jail Wednesday afternoon.

Defence lawyer Richard Wolson did not address alcohol consumption and said the cause of the collision came down to "excessive speed."

Holz saw two pedestrians on the road when he came out of the underpass, Wolson said. "He focused on one and when he saw the other (Severight), he didn’t have time to react appropriately."

Wolson, in an apparent effort to head off any possible public outrage over the sentence, said there was nothing untoward about the plea bargain. He said it took into consideration several factors that could have been problematic for the Crown had the case gone to trial, including challenges to the evidence of speed and alcohol use, and charter arguments.

"There are no winners in a case of this kind," Wolson said. "There is no question that in this jurisdiction, the sentence is a fit one."

In a statement, police Chief Danny Smyth expressed the police service’s sympathy to Severight’s family.

"(I) hope that they are provided some comfort in the knowledge that they were spared the anguish of a trial," Smyth said. "They are also victims. The officer has been held accountable by the court, he is no longer employed by the WPS."

Family members described Severight as a respectful, loving man, who loved to joke and tease his friends. He had addiction issues, but was taking steps to address them and further his education.

Holz’s show of remorse — and time — may help restore her family’s trust in police, Lebold later said outside court.

"I’m glad he said he was sorry for what happened," she said. "In time, I guess we will heal and forgive."

dean.pritchard@freepress.mb.ca

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