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Life after a Life Sentence

In May of 2022, the Supreme Court of Canada determined that stacking parole ineligibility for multiple murders is unconstitutional under Canadian law.

In 2011, Stephen Harper’s government passed legislation relating to sentencing provisions in the Criminal Code that would allow Judges to impose parole ineligibility far beyond the minimum of 25 years on the offence of First Degree Murder, pursuant to Section 745.51. 

Since that time, several sentences have been passed in imposing parole ineligibility, with the most lengthy sentence being no parole eligibility for 75 years in the case of Douglas Garland, who was found guilty of murdering two adults and their grandson. Garland appealed his sentence to the Alberta Court of Appeal, where it was upheld.

It was the case of the Quebec mosque shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, that resulted in a unanimous decision from all nine Supreme Court Justices to rule that the sentencing provision violated Section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, granting protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Bissonnette pleaded guilty to 6 counts of First Degree murder and six counts of attempted murder, and the Crown had asked for a parole ineligibility period of 150 years – 25 consecutive years for each of the six people he murdered – which would have been the harshest sentence handed down in Canada since the abolishment of capital punishment. The presiding Judge declined, and instead sentence Bissonnette to 40 years before he could apply for Parole. Criminal defence counsel appealed to the Quebec Court of Appeal in 2020, and the sentence was reduced to 25 years. The Crown then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which led to the landmark decision to cap parole ineligibility at 25 years.

With this decision, those incarcerated under the stacked ineligibility provision are seeking to have their sentences reduced, which has caused a great deal of alarm to the public. It is important to remember that someone convicted of first degree murder will have eligibility at Parole after 25 years – but that does not guarantee their release by any means. The Parole Board looks at many factors when determining whether or not to grant Parole, including the actual offence itself, criminal and social history, rehabilitation efforts, and remorse. Their review of an individuals history when considering release is thorough and rigid. Victim impact statements from family members and loved ones are also taken into consideration.

The decision from the SCC included the following passage:

“This appeal is not about the value of each human life, but rather about the limits of the state’s power to punish offenders.”

This is a reminder that the Court’s decision to limit parole ineligibility is not meant to diminish loss of life, or to favour offenders. It reaffirms that our government, including judicial institutions, must abide by limits to ensure that Canada remains a fair and just society for all.

If you have been charged with a criminal offence in British Columbia (including, but not limited to: Richmond, Vancouver, Surrey, Delta, Langley, Coquitlam, New Westminster, Abbotsford, Victoria, Nanaimo, Kamloops, Kelowna) or the Yukon Territory (including but not limited to: Whitehorse, Dawson City, Watson Lake, Haines Junction, Mayo, Old Crow) contact experienced counsel at Tarnow Criminal Law without delay. 

6 Years Later

It has been six years since Matthew de Grood was charged with the murders of five young people at a house party in Calgary, Alberta, and four years since he was found to be Not Criminally Responsible for those offences.

It was concluded that de Grood was suffering from delusions, attributed to undiagnosed schizophrenia, when he caused the deaths of five schoolmates from a local university. He has been in a secure psychiatric facility ever since.

As we have discussed in previous posts, a finding of NCR is neither a determination of guilt, nor an acquittal. It is the beginning of alternative proceedings, which ultimately seek to determine if/when an Accused person can be released back into the community. Like all individuals found NCR, de Grood is required to appear before the Review Board to assess his progress, and to evaluate what freedoms, if any, he may be granted as a result of said progress.

Back in 2016, the Crown suggested it would be making an Application to seek a “High Risk NCR” designation for de Grood. Had this designation been imposed, his appearance before the Review Board would have been extended to take place every three years instead of annually. However – it appears that the Application was never made. This was likely due to the fact that the relevant legislation – the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act – did not go into force until July 11, 2014, nearly 3 months after the offences took place. As such, the law could not be retroactively applied to de Grood’s case.

At his recent hearing, de Grood’s counsel spoke of the progress he has made during his time at the psychiatric facility. He has been afforded the opportunity to spend the night at his parent’s home on several occasions, taking hospital transportation to and from medical appointments, and volunteering with Meals on Wheels. His counsel submits that de Grood should be granted an absolute discharge due, in part, to the progress he has made with his mental health issues, including being cooperative with taking his medication – and recognizing the devastating consequences that would come as a result of not taking it. He has also demonstrated a high level of remorse for his actions.

Defence counsel further acknowledged that de Grood’s case is extremely high profile. There are concerns regarding the public’s reaction to seeing him on public transit, and how he may face serious adversity in transitioning to a group home.  

The Review Board reserved its decision, and accordingly, de Grood remains in a psychiatric facility with heavy restrictions on his freedoms.