Yukon Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower handed down a seven-year sentence to the man who fatally stabbed Tanner Sinclair in July 2014.
But he cautioned against seeing the sentence he imposed on Michael MacPherson as a reflection of the value of Sinclair’s life.
Determining sentences for manslaughter is especially tricky because it’s a crime that doesn’t carry a minimum sentence and encompasses everything from near-accidents to “near-murders,” Gower said.
“The sentences are all over the map,” Gower said.
In this case he ruled the case fell two-thirds up on that spectrum, closer to near-murder.
In the end, what mattered was MacPherson’s level of moral blameworthiness in the crime, he said.
With credit for time served while in remand, MacPherson has a little under six years to serve.
On the evening of July 14, 2014, MacPherson and Sinclair were socializing at the house of their friends, Kory Basaraba and Faye Johns. There were unresolved tensions about a truck Sinclair had sold to MacPherson, the latter complaining about mechanical issues he had with the truck.
That night MacPherson brought up again the issue of the truck while the two were in their friends’ backyard.
According to the agreed statement of facts, Sinclair said “I should just knock you out” to which MacPherson said “just do it.”
A fight ensued and Johns saw MacPherson swinging his arms at Sinclair and heard the sound of a blade hitting flesh while Sinclair said “enough” and “he is stabbing me.”
MacPherson fled, first hiding in a bedroom closet.
Basaraba got his neighbour, an off-duty paramedic, to help while Johns called 911.
Sinclair died at 5:36 am July 15, 2014 at Whitehorse General Hospital.
On July 17, while on the run, MacPherson called his mother, saying “I didn’t mean it,” and that it was self-defence. He turned himself in to the RCMP on Vancouver Island on July 25.
Video surveillance from a local bar taken hours before the stabbing was played in court, showing Sinclair apparently striking MacPherson in the face and pursuing him. The two had been drinking with Basaraba before the incident.
In determining the sentence Gower looked at a number of aggravating factors. MacPherson used a knife against an unarmed Sinclair, stabbed him four times in the torso, with some cuts 14 to 16 centimetres deep. He fought over a “needless argument,” Gower said, fled the scene of the crime and already had a criminal record.
MacPherson was convicted of assault with a weapon in 2001 and 2007.
In 2007 a very intoxicated MacPherson was asked to leave a party after making unwelcome comments to the host’s girlfriend. He smashed the host with a beer bottle twice in the face, resulting in 96 stitches. The victim also lost sight in his right eye.
Gower also noted the “devastating effect” that Sinclair’s death had on his family.
Six of Sinclair’s relatives told the court Feb. 21 of their pain and grief.
But there were also a number of mitigating factors Gower took into account.
MacPherson entered a guilty plea before the trial started.
He was to be tried before judge and jury Feb. 20 for second-degree murder.
Instead he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter Feb. 1, with the consent of the Crown prosecutor. He also expressed remorse for his crime.
On Feb. 22 at the closing of the defence’s argument MacPherson read an apology to Sinclair’s family.
The judge accepted MacPherson’s apology as sincere.
“I observed him to be sobbing for several minutes at the defence table (afterwards),” Gower said.
There was also some provocation from Sinclair that led to the fight, the judge said. MacPherson’s intention to remain clean and sober seems genuine and his criminal record is dated, Gower also said.
What the Crown sought
The sentence is closer to what the Crown prosecutors had asked for than the defence.
Prosecutor Eric Marcoux asked for an eight- to 10-year sentence.
Marcoux had told the court that MacPherson could have left Basaraba’s place when he saw Sinclair. MacPherson is also the one who repeatedly brought up the issue of the truck and challenged Sinclair to the fight, Marcoux said.
And given that the people present were MacPherson’s friends, in the worst-case scenario, MacPherson would have received a few punches, Marcoux said.
While MacPherson hasn’t been judged yet for an alleged breach of his bail condition he was charged with earlier this year, Marcoux filed two letters from the Vision Quest Recovery Society in B.C. that supervised MacPherson while he was out on bail. The letters say MacPherson admitted to using “everything” and tested positive for opiates, cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamine in January 2017. He was also caught with pills of fentanyl on him and a bottle of clean urine, the letter says.
What the defence sought
Defence lawyer Ray Dieno had asked for four years in custody.
On Feb. 22 Dieno painted a very different picture of MacPherson.
He told the story of a man who lost his brother in a tragic accident, and to whom the decision to take his brother off life support fell.
Dieno told the court about MacPherson’s long history of addiction and his efforts to remain clean while on bail. MacPherson, he said, moved to Whitehorse in the hope of becoming clean again. Dieno noted that his client spent more than a year and a half on bail under strict conditions. During that time he attended counselling for his substance abuse and worked as Vision Quest’s chef, a position of trust. A number of letters of support were filed to the court.
Gower did take issue with some of the letters that described MacPherson in a glowing light, the authors apparently unaware of MacPherson’s criminal record.
Dieno also suggested MacPherson acted in self-defence against Sinclair, a hunting guide physically stronger than his client, while acknowledging that MacPherson “went too far.” MacPherson didn’t pre-emptively arm himself with the knife, Dieno said, but rather used it as the fight was happening.
Dieno also accused the media of destroying any chance MacPherson would have had to a fair trial because of their portrayal of his client as a “psycho-killer.” Dieno didn’t provide any evidence to support this allegation.
The family’s reaction
Speaking from his home in Alberta, Sinclair’s dad, Brent, told the News he was disappointed with the sentence.
For him it was a case of premeditated murder.
During his impact statement, Brent told the court Tanner said MacPherson had threatened to kill him. Dieno later had that struck from the court record because it wasn’t part of the agreed statement of facts.
Brent criticized Dieno’s attempt to portray his son as the “bad guy” and noted that over $250,000 was raised to support Sinclair’s widow and two children.
“Some of (the people who donated) didn’t even know Tanner but knew people who knew him,” Brent said.
“That doesn’t happen unless you make a lasting impact on people as to the type of person you are.”
He thanked the Whitehorse community for its help.
“Now it’s time we look to the horizon and we walk,” he said.
“That’s all we can do now.”
Contact Pierre Chauvin at firstname.lastname@example.org