Sixteen-year-old charged with starting fatal fire elected trial by judge and jury
Crown prosecutors Dana Sullivan (left) and Jennifer Colford wait in Courtroom No. 5 at provincial court in St. John’s for proceedings to start in the case of a youth charged with manslaughter. — Photo by Rosie Gillingham/The Telegram
A teenage boy suspected of starting a fire that killed a man could be looking at a lot more time in jail if he’s convicted.
That’s because instead of agreeing to a less severe youth term, the Crown has decided it would ask the judge sentence him to an adult term.
Prosecutors Jennifer Colford and Dana Sullivan informed Judge Mike Madden in youth court Friday of their intention to seek an adult sentence should the teen be found guilty.
The 16-year-old was charged after a boarding house on Springdale Street in St. John’s burned down, killing a 54-year-old man on Nov. 27, 2011.
The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and firefighters were called to the blaze at 101 Springdale St. about 4 a.m. that day.
They found the building engulfed in flames.
Four people made it out of the burning home, but the body of Carlos Escobar-Medina was discovered after the fire was out.
Charges against the youth include manslaughter, three counts of arson causing bodily harm, three counts of arson causing property damage and multiple counts of breaching court orders.
Defence lawyer Peter Ralph told the court his client has chosen to be tried by judge and jury, with a preliminary inquiry set for May 9-31.
A focus hearing in the case has been set for April 3.
A plea has not been entered.
Ralph told reporters outside court that he is disappointed by the Crown’s decision to seek for an adult sentence if the teen is found guilty. He said he’s also “a little bit surprised, given the offence and the circumstances.”
The case prompted the province’s child and youth advocate to look into issues around the fire, specifically the services provided to the boy, who was living in the Springdale Street boarding house.
If the teen is convicted as a youth, the maximum sentence for manslaughter is three years in a youth detention centre. If he’s convicted as an adult, the maximum is life in prison, although few adults receive the maximum.
Sentencing normally ranges from under two years in jail up to eight years in jail.
However, the onus is on the Crown to prove the youth deserves an adult sentence.
Adult sentences for youths are rarely sought and are normally reserved for the most serious cases.
It’s believed the last time a youth was given an adult sentence in this province was in the case of Michael Victor Lewis, who killed Samantha Walsh of Fleur-de-Lys in 2000.
Lewis, who was 16 at the time, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. In November 2011, he was granted day parole by the Parole Board of Canada.
The other case that saw debate over youth-versus-adult sentencing was the case of a teenage male, who was charged in connection with the 2005 beating death of 29-year-old Richard Brace.
After an extensive hearing to argue the issues, the judge ruled the boy would be given a three-year youth sentence.
Ralph said there are some advantages of having the case dealt with this way.
“This gives us some more procedural safeguards, allows us to explore the case further before it goes to trial,” he said, “but generally speaking it’s not going to change how they approach the trial.”
The youth was quiet as he sat in the courtroom Friday. His mother, from whom he has been estranged, was also there.
Ralph said while the boy is holding up, it’s been tough.
“It’s not an easy time for him,” Ralph said. “It’s a very, very difficult situation for him to be in, when you’re perhaps going to be subject to an adult sentence and … eventually in jail with adults, so it’s not an easy time for him.”
The teen’s name is protected by a court-imposed publication ban. However, if he’s sentenced as an adult, the court’s publication ban is expected to be lifted.