The seriousness of the Crown’s failure to disclose evidence took centre-stage on the second day of a sentencing hearing for one of two men involved in the 2017 killing of Wilfred “Dickie” Charlie.
Mario Rueben Skookum, 27, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in December 2019 for his role in Charlie’s death.
He and his cousin, Tyler Aaron Skookum, had gone to Charlie’s house in Carmacks in June 2017 in search of alcohol. When Charlie, 57, didn’t give them any, Mario held him down while Tyler searched Charlie’s house.
At some point, Tyler, who has also pleaded guilty to manslaughter, emerged from the kitchen with a knife and began stabbing Charlie.
Mario, who said he was shocked by the stabbing and never intended any harm, got off of Charlie, who ran out of his house and collapsed. The cousins moved him to the Yukon River, where Tyler pushed him in.
His body was found near Fort Selkirk two weeks later.
Mario’s sentencing hearing had began July 23, with victim impact statements from Charlie’s family and Crown attorney Lauren Whyte arguing that Mario should receive five years’ imprisonment for his role in the killing.
With credit for time already spent in jail, that would mean Mario would have about two and a half more years to serve.
Mario’s defence lawyer, Bibhas Vaze, however, argued that Mario should only receive a one-year sentence followed by probation.
Vaze pointed to Mario’s low moral culpability — he had never intended to hurt Charlie, and had no way of knowing or controlling what Tyler would do — but, on July 24, drilled down on what he described as a serious wrongdoing on the part of a Crown attorney involved in the case.
The Crown, he said, had received statements from two Carmacks community members as part of a larger package of evidence in October 2018, days before Mario’s preliminary inquiry, but didn’t look at them until November and then “sat” on them for more than a year, only sharing them with the defence after Tyler’s lawyer made inquiries.
By then, Mario had already pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
The statements called into question the credibility of someone Vaze said was to be a “star witness” in the Crown’s case, and who had been with Tyler and Mario at Charlie’s house but had left before the violence began.
While the Crown conceded that failure to disclose the statements was a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — specifically, a section protecting the right to “make full answer and defence” — it failed to properly remedy the situation, Vaze argued.
The Crown offered Mario the chance to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial for first-degree murder, the charge he was originally facing and one that comes with an automatic sentence of life in prison upon conviction.
Besides the much-higher risk of running a first-degree murder trial, Vaze said Mario also had to contend with the uncertainty choosing to go to trial would have on his time spent in custody — he had no idea when the trial would be scheduled, or if he would be able to get bail in the meantime.
The Crown, meanwhile, would be in the same position it was before, Vaze said, and face no real consequences for the breach, which he described as “absolutely unacceptable.”
Making matters worse, he said, was that the Crown attorney who knew about the evidence was a senior, experienced one, and should have recognized the relevance of the statements right away. The conduct, he said, was sloppy at best and negligent at worst, and with a matter as serious as first-degree murder, the Crown can’t afford to be anything less than 100 per cent diligent.
The court, Vaze said, needed to hold the Crown accountable and make clear that this kind of conduct would not be tolerated.
In reply, Crown attorney Tom Lemon, speaking via video call from Toronto, described the breach as “minor” and that it should result in no more than a one or two-month reduction in sentence.
There was no evidence that the Crown in the case had acted maliciously in not disclosing the statements, he said, nor that the Crown was “willfully” withholding them. Instead, Lemon argued, it was a mistake, and one that the Crown immediately worked to rectify once it was brought to his attention.
Lemon also said that the right to a fair trial did not mean the right to a perfect trial, and that Vaze was holding the Crown to a perfect, impossible standard — it was reasonable, he argued, that the Crown didn’t look at the evidence right away as he was preparing for and heading into the preliminary hearing.
He did acknowledge that the discovery of the breach bumped Mario’s original sentencing date from March to July, causing him uncertainty, and therefore he was owed a small reduction in his sentence.
Mario was allowed to speak as the hearing drew to a close.
Turning to face the gallery of the courtroom and holding a few sheets of yellow lined paper in shaking hands, he apologized, in a wavering voice, for the pain he had caused.
“It’s heartbreaking to hear about the void and separation between my relatives who were once so close,” he said, adding that he hoped the community would one day be able to heal and feel the same comfort and safety it once had.
He also acknowledged the role that alcohol use had played in the crime, and the impact that substance use overall has had on his community, and pledged to seek treatment and counselling.
“I wish I had chose sobriety … I wish I could take back my decision of going out to drink that night,” he said. “I recognize if I stayed home that night I wouldn’t be here today.”
“I’m not a man without a conscience,” he said at another point, referring to victim impact statements that had been read to the court the day before, in which Charlie’s family members described their fear and resentment towards him and Tyler and what they saw as a lack of remorse. “My heart beats like you. I bleed like you. I’m not a monster.”
Mario said he hoped to make amends and give back to his community one day, but would respect Charlie’s family and give them the time they need first.
Mario’s mother, who was sitting at the back of the courtroom gallery, began sobbing loudly as he read his statement.
She was allowed to hug Mario across the barrier separating him and the lawyers from the gallery before he was led away, and urged him to call her soon.
Justice Edith Campbell reserved her decision. She and the lawyers will meet again early next month to pick a date for her to give her decision.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org