OPINION | Hallam Case Botched from the Beginning

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Even though evidence showed he was nowhere near the scene when Gordon Hogan and Terry Stevens killed 18-year-old cab driver Donald Lanthier in a robbery that netted them $15, John Moore was convicted of second-degree murder in a Sault Ste. Marie court in 1978 on the basis of a law that said he “ought to have known” what the two were planning because he was with them earlier in the day.

Moore will be on parole for the rest of his life, even though the Supreme Court of Canada in 1985 overturned a similar conviction in regard to Yvan Vaillaincourt, who was actually at the scene when his partner in a robbery killed a storekeeper.

As unfortunate as Moore’s case is, it would have been even worse if it had taken place in Texas. There he would not be on parole; he would be on death row.

A story in the Texas Tribune reveals that in the early morning of Jan. 2, 1996, Jeffery Lee Wood sat in a truck outside a Kerrville gas station while his friend, Daniel Reneau, went inside to steal a safe said to be full from the holiday weekend. When the clerk, Kriss Keeran, didn’t comply or respond to threats, Reneau shot him dead.
Reneau was sentenced to death and executed in 2002. Wood received his own death sentence under Texas’s felony murder statute, which holds that anyone involved in a crime resulting in death is equally responsible, even if they weren’t directly involved in the actual killing.

Wood is set to die by lethal injection Aug. 24.

Compare the sentences handed Moore and Wood to the one handed down to the three men involved in the killing and dismembering of Wesley Hallam in this city.

Eric Mearow, Ronald Mitchell and Dylan Jocko recently had their first-degree murder charges reduced to manslaughter. As a result Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian McMillan sentenced the three to 10 years in prison, which means, since they have been given credit for the five and half years they have been in detention, that they will be out in two years or less.

The sentences have many in the city outraged.

But having read the circumstances of how the killing came about since McMillan accepted the plea bargain, I have now come to understand how a first-degree murder charge probably wouldn’t have held up.

However, I firmly believe a charge of second-degree murder would have held up and a jury should have been given the opportunity to rule on it.

After all, a trial by jury is really what the people of this city wanted and indeed expected.

They see the plea bargain as unacceptable, as do I, an opinion I expressed on Northern Hoot in a column The Sault Star declined to print, the paper preferring to announce the plea bargain after it appeared in court rather than before because of a fear of legal problems.

The Crown and defence naturally wanted the plea bargain kept quiet but my take, of course, being a journalist, was that the general public had a right to know about it ahead of time since others did, myself included.

Prominent local lawyer Don Orazietti, well known for his arguments in court, and sometimes with the court, was one in the legal profession who disagreed with the plea bargain.

“Good article, Doug,” he wrote in an email to me.

“As a lawyer working in the justice system I’m as baffled and embarrassed as anyone as to what happened in the Hallam case.

“It sounds like it was real mess from the start.”

Orazietti said the first degree murder charge on the basis that the murder was planned and deliberate seemed to be pretty fanciful and led to protracted litigation.

“That was mistake number one,” he said. “This case was never about planning and deliberation. If anything it seemed to be sparked by an insult to Mitchell. All parties were in some degree of impaired state of mind so first degree was never in play, in my opinion, at least not seriously in play.

“The correct charge was second-degree murder, intention to cause death. Mitchell had motive and reacted to an insult from Hallam.”

He said mistake number two was when the Crown refused offers from Jocko and Mearow to testify against Mitchell because it thought it could prove first-degree murder.

“The third mistake was dropping the charge to manslaughter from first degree.

“Our system works on the principle that a person intends the natural consequences of his act. So, for example, if you stab someone in the neck and they die you are presumed to intend to cause death. The burden of showing otherwise falls to the accused. He must raise a doubt that he lacked an intention to cause death because of impairment of the mind.

“That was for the jury to decide. What credible evidence was there? These accused quickly swung into action to dismember the body to conceal evidence and to clean up. Clearly there is some evidence of an operating mind.
“Not every person who is impaired or intoxicated is automatically deemed to lack the intent to murder. The level of intoxication required is quite high because it amounts to saying I had no idea what I was doing That doesn’t sound like the case here.”

I think Orazietti is spot on. The jury should have been given a chance to convict on murder in the second degree.
Conviction on a charge of second-degree murder would have meant a minimum sentence of 10 years before there is an opportunity for parole.

Personally I don’t think even the 10 years minimum would be enough but they would certainly be better than what they are to get under the manslaughter conviction. Under it they only have to serve two-thirds of the 10-year sentence, which because of credit for time served will see them out and on the streets of this city in two years or less.

Police Chief Robert Keetch, considering how much effort and money was put into this case, wants a review of how it came to this. I certainly hope he gets it because he deserves it. Actually, we all do.

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

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