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Justin Jennings' case barely meets criteria for extortion charge, defence lawyer says in St. John's court

Justin Jennings smiles as he is escorted from a St. John’s courtroom to the holding cells for a final time, to await the paperwork releasing him from custody.
Justin Jennings. - Tara Bradbury file photo/The Telegram

Crown sees the case differently, asking the judge to sentence Jennings to 20 months behind bars

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Justin Jennings' lawyer asked the court Wednesday to sentence her client to time served on an extortion charge, saying the circumstances of the case just barely meet the criteria for the crime.

The Crown saw the case in a more serious light, asking the judge to consider elements of the crime akin to a home invasion and sentence Jennings to 20 months in jail.

Jennings, 34, was convicted last week of extortion, with provincial court Judge Mark Pike saying although there was no weapon, no violence and no direct threat of harm in the case, Jennings' intent to extort money from a man when he showed up at his Mount Pearl home this past spring was clear.

A still photo taken from video footage shown during Justin Jennings’ extortion trial in provincial court in St. John’s. - Contributed
 A still photo taken from video footage shown during Justin Jennings’ extortion trial in provincial court in St. John’s. - Contributed

The complainant's doorbell camera captured Jennings knocking on the man's front door and asking for him, then telling the man he had been sent to collect a $37,000 debt. He didn't know what the debt was for, he said, and suggested the man pay a third of the money right away or things would "get worse." If he couldn't pay with money, Jennings said, he'd have to pay with something else.

The man told Jennings he didn't have a debt and didn't know what he was talking about, suggesting it was his friend, Johnny, who owed the money. He insisted Jennings text the person who sent him to ask for more details.

The man testified he felt intimidated by Jennings and afraid of him, and feared violence. When Jennings left, telling the man to sort things out with his friend and meet him in an hour, the man contacted police.

"His fear and concern was for good reason," Pike said in convicting Jennings.

Crown prosecutor Jude Hall, arguing for a 20-month jail term Wednesday, pointed to Jennings' lengthy criminal record as an aggravating factor in the case, and a predictor of future risk.

Jennings has prior convictions for property offences, breaches of court orders, assaults and driving offences, Hall said.

"He clearly has a fairly consistent record of criminal behaviour," Hall told the judge.

Calling the extortion case an example of a "classic strong-arm debt collection," Hall argued the circumstances should be considered as something of a home invasion, since Jennings had gone to the man's residence specifically with the goal of getting the money.

"We know he specifically went to that home with information already on his phone," Hall said. "He specifically asked at the door for the victim. The whole exchange happened on the front step. In our position, you still have an offence committed in relation to the home, and we ask that you consider that an aggravating factor."

Averill Baker.
Averill Baker.

Defence lawyer Averill Baker disagreed, saying the prior criminal cases Hall had presented as examples to support his argument were more serious and involved threats or references to organized crime.

"We have no weapons, no assault, no victim impact statement, no confinement of a victim. It's different from every other case (of extortion)," Baker argued, pointing out to the judge that Jennings had worked with the complainant to try to figure out what was going on when the man said he didn't owe any money.

The video showed both men as composed and relaxed and using regular speaking voices, she said.

"There is nothing sinister here," Baker said, suggesting Jennings had believed he was collecting a legitimate debt.

"Yes, this is an error in judgment," she said, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but I would suggest my client did not intend to commit a crime."

Baker asked Pike to consider sentencing Jennings to the time he has already spent in custody awaiting trial: 93 days. Since Jennings is entitled to enhanced credit at a rate of 1 1/2 days to every one he has spend on remand, he has earned credit for about 4 1/2 months.

Jennings has also been convicted of charges of driving while disqualified and breaching court orders, which were laid a year ago. He pleaded guilty to all three charges, and Hall and Baker agreed on a sentencing suggestion of 60 days time served. Jennings had already earned that jail credit at the time he was arrested for extortion.

Twitter: @Tara Bradbury


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