The Supreme Court of Canada is currently deliberating on how long the gunman who murdered six people in a Quebec mosque should stay in jail before a possibility of parole, in a case that could redefine sentencing provisions for the most serious crimes in Canada.
Alexandre Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first degree murder and six counts of attempted murder for his attack on worshipers at the Islamic Cultural Center on January 29, 2017.
He was initially sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 40 years – the longest period of parole ineligibility ever issued in Quebec.
But in a unanimous decision, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned that decision, reducing Bissonnette’s parole ineligibility to 25 years.
The Court of Appeal ruled that the accumulation of consecutive periods without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional and amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment.
He also invalidated section of the Criminal Code which allows judges to impose consecutive blocks of 25 years of parole ineligibility for multiple first-degree murders – a ruling that only applies in Quebec.
At Thursday’s hearing, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of these sentencing provisions, which were introduced in 2011 by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in an effort to prevent a “reduction “sentence for the multiple murders.
As an intervener in the case, Sameha Omer, a lawyer for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said that while courts must avoid cruel and unusual punishment, sentences must also be proportionate.
“Offenders can choose to kill as many people as possible, knowing that they will not receive a different sentence than if they had committed murder,” Omer said.
Lawyers for the Government of Canada and several provinces, including Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, all argue in favor of the sentencing provision which allows for cumulative parole ineligibility, while Bissonnette’s lawyers, as well as associations representing defense attorneys and civil liberties organizations, are asking that this provision be declared unconstitutional.
Quebec prosecutors ask for 50 years
Prosecutors in Bissonnette’s trial originally requested six consecutive periods of parole ineligibility, totaling 150 years.
But the trial judge, Superior Court Judge Francois Huot, ruled a 25-year parole ineligibility period for the first five concurrent sentences, plus an unusual 15-year period for the sixth sentence. , to be purged consecutively.
The Court of Appeal judges determined that this type of hybrid sentence constituted misapplication of the law and was the wrong way to address concerns about the constitutionality of consecutive sentences.
But the judges also denounced the “absurdity” of a law that could allow parole ineligibility that extends far beyond a person’s natural life.
On Thursday, Quebec Crown Attorney François Godin argued that granting Bissonnette the possibility of parole after 25 years was not proportionate to the gravity of his crimes, asking that it be increased to 50 years.
It would mean Bissonnette, who was 27 when he committed his crimes, could seek parole at the age of 77.
“It’s a clear case for applying cumulative sentences,” Godin said. “There is no other way to reflect gravity.”
Godin pointed out that other multiple murderers received even longer sentences of parole ineligibility.
This is particularly the case of Justin Bourque, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for 75 years for killing three RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick, in 2014.
Consecutive sentencing ‘an extreme solution’, defense says
Chief Justice Richard Wagner responded that everyone agrees Bissonnette’s crime was ‘one of the worst crimes we have ever seen’ and would ‘leave scars’ in Quebec and Canada in its entirety.
But Wagner wondered if an offender would have an opportunity for rehabilitation, faced with long consecutive periods of parole ineligibility. He said the provision could lead to “ridiculous” sentences that “make a mockery” of the justice system and would amount to “a death sentence by incarceration”.
Godin and lawyers representing other provinces and the federal government have argued that the law still allows judges to exercise their discretion.
“It is only when the judge is convinced that the defendant presents no possibility of rehabilitation…[that] it can impose consecutive sentences,” said Ian Demers, counsel for the Attorney General of Canada.
Judge Suzanne Côté pointed out that judges are actually limited in their discretion, as they can only increase parole ineligibility in multiple first-degree murder cases in 25-year increments.
Lawyers from Quebec and Ontario have both argued that there are killings so heinous that concerns about rehabilitation should outweigh denunciation and deterrence.
“Rehabilitation is an important factor…but it’s not an asset,” added Milan Rupic, advocating for the Attorney General of Ontario.
But Charles-Olivier Gosselin, Bissonnette’s lawyer, called the law an “extreme solution” that does not limit consecutive sentences to only “the most incorrigible murderers”.
He argued that Bissonnette has “a real possibility of rehabilitation.”
Erin Dann, a lawyer at the Prison Law Clinic at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., which provides legal advice to inmates and parolees, argued that long periods of parole ineligibility “change the quality to life imprisonment and are contrary to the principles of fundamental justice.
“A sentence like this: a death sentence in prison that declares a person irredeemable…denies that human dignity,” she said.
The arguments are over and the Supreme Court justices will now deliberate on the matter.
Boufeldja Benabdallah, spokesperson for the Islamic Cultural Center, hopes the court’s final decision will help the community “turn the page”.
“We hope that this can serve as an example (…) and that this type of drama can never happen again. That those tempted [by violence] know that justice is there… and that the sentences will be proportionate,” he said.
Benabdallah said a just sentence must consider the impact on families, on Quebec society and on members of the mosque community, who have had to take significant steps to try to feel safe again.
However, he said the community would accept the court’s decision regardless of the outcome.