OPINION | Sault Police Chief Sets Record Straight on 1st Degree Murder Charge in Hallam Death

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Police Chief Robert Keetch isn’t backing off on his belief that a charge of first-degree murder was in fact the right charge against those who killed Wesley Hallam, despite a plea bargain that saw charges dropped all the way to manslaughter and offering indignity to a human body against Ron Mitchell, Eric Mearow and Dylan Jocko.

I had written in this space last week that having read some of how the killing of Hallam came about at a house party in January 2011, I had now come to understand how a charge of first-degree murder wouldn’t have held up.

However, I said I believed a charge of second-degree murder would have.

The initial comment prompted an email from the chief offering a clarification that I find compelling.

“Regarding your recent article in the Northern Hoot, the article is well written but I just wanted to clarify one aspect of your story which I feel is somewhat incorrect,” Keetch wrote.

“You express the opinion in the early paragraphs of the article that the charge of first-degree murder probably wouldn’t have held as it was not planned and deliberate. Although that is generally one of the critical components of a charge of first-degree murder there are exceptions to that requirement within the legislation.

“Sec. 231(1) within the Criminal Code classifies murder as either first degree or second degree. Sec. 231(2) describes first degree murder ‘when it is planned or deliberate.’ You are correct within your article to indicate that there was no evidence before the court that the Hallam murder was planned or deliberate.

“I suggest that you read further within the legislation. Section 231(5) states: “ Irrespective of whether a murder is planned and deliberate on the part of any person, murder is first degree in respect of a person when the death is caused by that person while committing or attempting to commit an offence under the following subsection of Sec. 279, (e) (kidnapping or forcible confinement).

“I think that if you were to review Justice Buttazoni’s decision from the preliminary hearing (committal to trial on first degree), he speaks specifically to this issue in ordering the committal to trial on first degree murder.
“I just thought that I would bring this to your attention and hopefully clarify this issue for you?”

Ontario Court Justice Andrew Buttazoni was the judge who heard evidence at the preliminary hearing and I wish I had access to his decision, which I regret to say I don’t.

But I have to agree that Keetch makes a salient point bringing up Sec. 279 and how it relates to first-degree murder. Sec. 279.(1) says “Every person commits an offence who kidnaps a person with intent (e) to cause the person to be confined or imprisoned against the person’s will.”

Hallam definitely was forcibly confined by Mitchell, Mearow and Jocko as, after having been stabbed once in a blow by Mitchell that it was later determined led to his eventual death, he was being pulled from the bedroom to the bathroom to be further stabbed and dismembered.

Reading what the chief has to say on the matter I now agree that the first-degree charge should have stood and the case proceeded to trial. Second-degree murder could have been a fallback for a jury reluctant to convict on first-degree, as was the case this week in the sentencing of election night shooter Richard Bain in Montreal. However, considering the horrifics of the local event I doubt a jury would have gone that easy route here.

In any event, the three should have gotten before a jury. There never should have been a plea bargain, especially one that saw the charges dropped all the way to manslaughter and a 10-year sentence.

Buttazoni committed the three to trial for first-degree murder on the basis of the evidence the Crown presented, as well as addressing the confinement issue in regard to that charge.

If the case had gone to trial and the three had been convicted of first-degree murder, they would have had to serve a minimum 25 years before becoming eligible for parole; if they had been convicted of second-degree murder, they would have had to serve a minimum 10 years, more at the discretion of the judge.

Upon their eventual release on either charge they would be placed on parole for the rest of their natural lives, something that is not the case when having completed a sentence for manslaughter.

The chief made no secret that he was not in favour of the plea bargain.

He said in a formal statement after it was announced that “we, as a Police Service, are as disappointed with today’s outcome as is the Hallam family.”

And the Canadian Press reported the chief as saying his force only found out about the plea deal after officers who were escorting the accused to and from their court appearances overheard them discussing it.

“We were hearing these rumours and we were asking the Crown if there was a resolution in the works and we were told there was no deal,” Keetch said.

After repeated questioning, Keetch said, the Crown’s regional office finally admitted that Mitchell, Mearow and Jocko would plead to lesser charges. Keetch said he was told the plea deal was first suggested after prosecutors from outside the area were asked to weigh in on the case.

He said he was going to meet with the provincial Attorney General’s office to discuss why his lead investigators were shut out of the negotiations and why prosecutors denied a deal was in the works.

“We’ll live with the decision, but I want to see the process change for the future so the circumstances that led up to the resolution to this case doesn’t happen again,” Keetch said. “I’m looking to effect policy and/or procedural change.”

He told me he didn’t have much of an update regarding his suggestion regarding a ‘third party independent review.’

“I am awaiting an opportunity to meet with the Assistant Deputy Minister (James Cornish) from the Ministry of the Attorney General,” he said.

“I emailed him as a follow-up to his offer to meet and was reassured that he is presently reviewing the circumstances regarding the Hallam plea arrangement and that he still intended to meet with myself and the Commissioner of the OPP.”

The Canadian Press story also said the chief had taken issue with the agreed statement of facts that was read when the plea deal was presented to McMillan.

“There is significant differences in the sense of the evidence we gathered and what was presented in court,” he said, but would not comment further.

I think the worry for many is that these three will be walking the streets of this city within two years, possibly with some payback in mind for those who courageously took the witness stand in the preliminary hearing.

The Mearow family, especially his sister, Chieanne Ainslie, as reported by Steffanie Petroni, editor of this site, want him to remain in rather than get out.

They recognize the danger he represents; it is too bad the Crown didn’t.

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Doug Millroy can be reached at millroy@fibreop.ca.

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