The judge had her written decision in her hand when she walked into the courtroom Friday.
Two weeks after lawyers presented their final arguments, Judge Pam Goulding was ready to hand down her decision on how long a 19-year-old woman who committed a violent robbery would spend in prison.
But in a surprising turn of events, just minutes before the judge would impose sentencing, defence lawyer Peter Ralph stood up in court and asked that he change his sentencing recommendation.
During submissions on May 24, Ralph was adamant that a provincial prison term of two years less a day would be best for his client, Camille Strickland-Murphy, who suffers from mental conditions.
He said a provincial sentence would allow her family to continue to visit her. He told the judge a federal sentence would be “unduly long and harsh.”
But on Friday, in provincial court in St. John’s, Ralph changed his tune.
He told the judge a federal term of two years plus a day would be better for Strickland-Murphy.
Ralph said there has been a recent change to his client’s medication, and after consulting with her and her family, they agree that with better resources at the federal level, Strickland-Murphy would get better care and treatment in a federal penitentiary.
The judge was surprised by the sudden change and didn’t seem pleased.
“I had prepared a written decision,” Goulding said. “If I adjourn for two weeks (to consider the request), will you say things have changed again and say something else?”
Ralph assured her that wouldn’t happen.
“Deciding on the best care and treatment is not an easy decision, but there are things available federally that aren’t available provincially,” he said. “You have to balance that with the proximity of her family.”
Strickland-Murphy has pleaded guilty to armed robbery.
It happened April 3, when Strickland-Murphy, dressed in her brother’s clothes, approached a woman in her late 50s at the ScotiaBank ATM in Churchill Square, grabbed her around the neck, held a knife to her throat and demanded money.
The woman managed to push the knife away and convince Strickland-Murphy to go outside, but Strickland-Murphy made off with $300. She told the woman that if she called police, she would kill her.
Strickland-Murphy also pleaded guilty to forging a prescription at Shopper’s Drug Mart on Elizabeth Avenue Feb. 29, stealing a car in Churchill Square March 7 and breaching court orders.
Psychiatrist Dr. Nazar Ladha had testified that Strickland-Murphy suffers from several personality and psychiatric disorders, including social anxiety disorder, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder and anxiety.
Crown prosecutor William Cadigan had requested a three-year jail term, pointing to the severity of the crime and the effect it’s had on the victim.
With her opportunity to speak Friday, Strickland-Murphy apologized for breaking the law.
“I’m sorry for what I did and all the people I hurt,” she said.
“At this point, I really hope you give me a federal sentence. I think there’s much more diversity and help in federal prisons. … This is not an easy decision for my family, but I’m not getting the psychiatric care I need here …
“So, I ask for two years plus a day — if nothing else, for the severity of my crime.”
Goulding said she would render her final decision June 18.
Before proceedings ended, Ralph stood and apologized to the court for the sudden change of events, to which Goulding replied, “It would’ve been nice if we had notice of this change.”
Ralph pointed out that it had been a last-minute change.
“That’s one of my concerns,” the judge replied before leaving the bench.
Outside court, Ralph told reporters that rehabilitation needs to be a specific consideration when sentencing people with mental illness.
“The public needs to appreciate that the sentence is punishment,” Ralph said. “It will have a deterrent value for others.... But when you are sentencing someone who has a mental illness, you also have to take that into account.
“If our streets are going to be safer, you have to think about that when you’re imposing sentence. If you don’t, you’re not going to make the streets safer.”