<address>David Kotchea’s preliminary hearing sparked protest in Whitehorse in February 2021. Kotchea was acquitted last week. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)</address>

David Kotchea’s preliminary hearing sparked protest in Whitehorse in February 2021. Kotchea was acquitted last week. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

‘This is not justice’: Court hears criticism after Watson Lake man acquitted

Case relied on words of alleged victims. Speakers say alleged victims’ situations were not considered

Community impact statements in the final day of David Kotchea’s trial criticized the court’s systemic treatment of traumatized community members.

Kotchea was found not guilty of two serious assaults on Oct. 19. He is banned from entering Watson Lake, even to pass through by road, during his three-year probation period.

Kotchea faced two charges of aggravated assault after police located him near a home where two people had been seriously injured in the summer of 2020. The Crown’s case to convict Kotchea largely depended on the testimony of the people who had been injured, one man and one woman.

Following the trial, defence lawyer Kevin Drolet, who had assisted Kotchea with cross examinations and at sentencing, said the complainants’ testimony was marred by their intoxication at the time of the alleged assault and the contamination of their memories by input from other people. He said a stronger circumstantial case would have been needed to be built for the Crown to have secured a conviction.

At the end of evidence presentation on Oct. 19, lawyers representing the Crown and defence agreed there was insufficient evidence based on the complainants’ testimony to convict Kotchea of the assaults. Kotchea entered guilty pleas to two charges of breaching court conditions and was given a suspended sentence with a range of conditions in Whitehorse the following day.

After the verdicts had been reached, Liard First Nation Chief Stephen Charlie addressed the court.

Charlie described the outcome of the case as a very sad situation. He said that while he wants the reasonable doubt standard to be in place in court cases, systemic racism is still present in how the justice system is structured. He said the system has never been structured in his people’s favour.

Moving forward, it is crucial that Canada and the Liard First Nation look at how the legal system has been tilted against his people, he said.

“I feel really sorry for the individuals who were hurt in this. I also feel for Mr. Kotchea.”

The chief said he recognizes that the stories put forward by the alleged victims who testified did not meet the standard of proof under Canada’s justice system but it would be sufficient for his people’s system.

“We will continue to help our members heal and support them through this. I just want to recognize them for putting themselves forward even with their limited mental and cognitive abilities.”

Overall, Charlie said there must be a change to the ways laws are imposed on his people.

Chief Justice Suzanne Duncan, who ruled on the case, acknowledged that when a case gets to this stage, the tools available to the court are limited and the issues at play are much broader than the Criminal Code offences being dealt with.

Linda McDonald, a representative of the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society (LAWS) also addressed the court, saying that Kotchea’s case is the fourth related to the Liard and Watson Lake community that have been thrown out on similar grounds. She added that those cases, dropped or unable to secure a conviction based on technicalities, have occurred over the past two years.

An Oct. 25 press release circulated by LAWS notes that another Watson Lake case involving alleged violent crimes was dropped when witnesses did not show up to testify.

“Victims of violence become afraid to participate in the legal system when community members see how victims are humiliated during court proceedings,” it reads.

LAWS worked to draw attention to Kotchea’s case throughout 2021 and 2022, including protests outside the courthouses in Watson Lake and Whitehorse during the preliminary hearing.

“Those of us who live here are going to live with the aftermath of this, and this isn’t justice,” McDonald said.

She said based on her observation of the trial, the situations of the alleged victims of the assault were not taken into account in the case. McDonald directly criticized the court’s failure to consider the effects their injuries, as well as the psychological trauma, had on their memories and ability to make themselves understood in court.

“I just want you to know that we’ll be picking up the pieces all next week and maybe the constables here will be dealing with the aftermath of this.”

McDonald wondered aloud what she would tell the women she works with at LAWS and others in the community about the results of the case and its implications for community members’ hopes for justice if they are victims of violent crime.

Duncan agreed that further discussion of the way these cases are handled is needed and said she hopes people won’t see the result as a deterrent to reporting crime. She said she hopes people will continue seeking justice using the “blunt tools” available to them.

Contact Jim Elliot at jim.elliot@yukon-news.com