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Lucas's lawyer says trial judge rejected a joint submission for a more lenient sentence without following the law
The judge who sentenced convicted killer Chesley Lucas to 12 ½ years behind bars put too much emphasis on public interest in the case and not enough on the sacrifices Lucas had made in order to strike a deal with the Crown, a defence lawyer argued Tuesday.
“Mr. Lucas had a very triable case,” Jason Edwards told a panel of three judges at the province’s Court of Appeal in St. John’s, arguing the trial judge had not followed the law when he rejected a sentencing submission for 7 ½ years presented in agreement by the Crown and defence.
Lucas and Calvin Kenny were sentenced together in January 2018 to 12 ½ years in prison after they had pleaded guilty to manslaughter, forcible confinement and robbery in connection with the death of Steven Miller in Conception Bay South two years earlier.
Two other men pleaded guilty in connection with Miller’s killing: Kyle Morgan, who was sentenced to a year in jail for being an accessory after the fact to manslaughter, and Paul Connolly, who has yet to be sentenced on charges of manslaughter, robbery, forcible confinement and court order breaches.
Kenny had also appealed his sentence, but died in prison in 2019.
Miller had been assaulted and kidnapped by three masked men with guns who forced their way into his Seal Cove home and then set it alight. His body was found four hours later in a driveway in a residential area of Kelligrews. He had been stabbed multiple times.
The judge presiding over Lucas and Kenny’s case rejected the joint sentencing submission, saying he had concerns with multiple aspects of it, believed certain parts of it related to the two men were “extremely low” and felt the suggested sentence could undermine the public’s faith in the justice system.
Judges are obligated to accept joint submissions on sentencing unless they can prove it would be contrary to public interest or would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. They must also consider the quid pro quo — the give and take — involved when the two parties come to a joint decision.
The Supreme Court of Canada has acknowledged plea bargains and joint submissions as important in maintaining the criminal justice system, lowering the burden on courts and freeing up resources.
Edwards suggested the trial judge had dismissed the quid pro quo in Lucas’s case and rejected the joint submission without applying the proper test. Lucas had given up his right to go to trial and agreed to the sentencing suggestion even though the case against him, in particular, was weak and involved no physical evidence, the lawyer said.
“To be honest with you, to me, the rejection of the quid pro quo is perhaps the most disturbing element of this case. As a defence counsel, it’s alarming,” Edwards said, adding an accused who gives up his right to trial in a situation like his client’s should be entitled to some kind of certainty.
"... to me, the rejection of the quid pro quo is perhaps the most disturbing element of this case. As a defence counsel, it’s alarming." — Jason Edwards
A reasonable member of the public who had all the details of the circumstances of the case and the quid pro quo would not think the proposed sentence was too lenient, Edwards argued.
Prosecutor Dana Sullivan stressed the Crown is not withdrawing from the joint submission, but believes the trial judge applied the law correctly when he rejected it.
“Joint submissions are not binding. Judges can depart from them, but there is a high threshold for rejection,” she said.
The trial judge had to consider the average sentence for the crime — which he had described as a “gangland-type homicide” — and the nature of the circumstances, Sullivan said, pointing out the brutal facts of the case that saw Miller “dumped like garbage” in a driveway.
“The trial judge looked at the sentence that was being proposed and then he looked at the range of sentences that would be appropriate in this case and, at the end of the day, he called the joint submission exceptionally low,” Sullivan said. “Is he applying a different test than (Edwards) suggests? No, he’s not.”
The trial judge would have assessed the quid pro quo, she said, since he would have had to examine the justification for a joint submission he felt was too lenient.
The appellate judges are expected to render their decision later this year, potentially affecting the way judges deal with joint submissions in the future.
The decision will also have possible effects on Connolly’s case: his lawyers are waiting for the result of Lucas’s appeal before presenting their sentencing suggestions.