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Bob Wakeham: Justice out of whack

Sometimes, the scales of justice seem unbalanced.
Sometimes, the scales of justice seem unbalanced. — 123RF Stock Photo

This has been a maddening couple of weeks to get a grasp on the seemingly inequitable way in which our justice system so often works, the handling and disposition of several cases prompting, I’m sure, a shaking of heads from Lamaline to Labrador City.

Bob Wakeham
Bob Wakeham

It’s not as if, of course, frustration with the courts is some sort of aberration; the exasperated rhetorical cries of “What was that judge thinking? What was that lawyer thinking?” have been heard endlessly as those of us not endowed with higher power judicial wisdom — an enlightenment that apparently comes with the “paper chase” of law school and the donning of black robes — strum with regularity a chord of exasperation and occasional anger.

And judges and lawyers will imply, in a patronizing way, that we, the unwashed, would understand more clearly where they’re coming from, and how they arrive at their decisions, if only we had the knowledge, the insight, of the nuances of the law they have been blessed to have.

Well, speaking as a member of the unwashed (but one fortunate enough to have a weekly form of journalistic expression), I’d suggest legal niceties be damned when the public is forced to accept the implications of the so-called administration of justice to which we’ve been exposed in recent days.

There was the ruling, for example, by the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal that the five-year prison term given to 74-year-old Reginald O’Keefe for sexually molesting four young girls was “unduly long and harsh,” and that it be reduced by half.

And I can’t imagine the sort of chilling impact the ruling will have on other victims of sexual molestation who are understandably grappling with what has to be an enormously difficult decision to talk to police about hideous assaults that have occurred in their lives.

And all the legal jargon that attempted to justify what must have seemed like an immoral judgement to the victims — now grown women, brave souls who came forward separately upon hearing that O’Keefe had been convicted of molesting a three-year old girl — only added to the general grievance and dissatisfaction already in place in the public mind.

Driving along in my truck the other day, I near shouted at the radio as I listened to a lawyer attempting to explain to CBC “On the Go” host Ted Blades the meaning of the “totality” principle of the Appeal Court decision; ultimately, my eyes glazed over — it was legal gobbledygook.

The bottom line: the court felt a man who sexually molested little girls, and dramatically and traumatically altered, I’m pretty well sure, their very existence, had received a “harsh” sentence of five years; no sentence, if the victims had been asked, could possibly have been overly “harsh”; they’d have plenty of support.

And I can’t imagine the sort of chilling impact the ruling will have on other victims of sexual molestation who are understandably grappling with what has to be an enormously difficult decision to talk to police about hideous assaults that have occurred in their lives.

Then there was the well-publicized case last week in which a loud-mouthed bully named Justin Penton was acquitted for “disturbing the peace,” a charge that minimized an incident in which he shouted the obscenity, “F--k her right in the p---y” at NTV reporter Heather Gillis as she was conducting an interview with then St. John’s city councillor Danny Breen at the Robin Hood Bay dump.

Gillis, understandably so, said she was “humiliated, embarrassed and disgusted” at the comments, but Judge Colin Flynn decided that “something more than emotional upset and a momentary interruption of a conversation is needed to constitute the criminal offence” of “disturbing the peace.”

Flynn qualified his judgment by suggesting his ruling doesn’t mean such obscenities can be uttered publicly with impunity, and that lawmakers might want to consider broadening the law to deal with what has become a tasteless, sexist North American occurrence in which female television reporters are verbally harassed with the same slur Penton shouted at Gillis.

Again, a bottom line: there were no legal repercussions for Penton.

Gillis described the outcome as “ridiculous.” She was absolutely right.

At least she can take some solace in the knowledge that Penton was publicly scorned and humiliated.

And that MHA Cathy Bennett has announced she plans to introduce legislation in the Newfoundland House of Assembly to ensure there are, in fact, “legal consequences” for the sort of attack Gillis endured.

Finally, last week lawyers for Calvin Kenny and Chesley Lucas said they would appeal the 12 1/2 years in prison their clients were sentenced for their part in the shocking death of 25-year-old Steven Miller; the two had pleaded guilty to manslaughter, robbery, arson and abduction. (Many of the facts in the case have remained under wraps because the trial of another man charged in the killing, Paul Connolly, has not yet taken place.)

Judge Flynn had rejected a joint submission from the Crown and the defence lawyers of 7 1/2 years for Kenny and Lucas, saying it would undermine public confidence in the judicial system.

Miller’s grandparents told The Telegram’s Pam Frampton this past week that the appeal has ripped open a wound that had not even begun to heal, that they are still trying to come to grips with the terror their grandson must have gone through.

They felt even the 12 l/2 years was an insufficient sentence.

They’re not alone. Not by a long shot.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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