A Watson Lake man whose assault trial instigated courthouse rallies last year has been found not guilty primarily due to imperfect witness testimony and evidence collection.
Even though he was acquitted, David Kotchea has still been ordered to stay away from the community where the alleged assaults took place.
Once the attempt to convict him for seriously injuring two people in the summer of 2020 broke down on the second full day of his trial in Watson Lake, Kotchea entered guilty pleas to the two charges of breaching conditions. One stemmed from his drunkenness on the night the assaults were alleged to have taken place and the other because he was legally barred from contacting one of the alleged victims of the assaults.
Kotchea was sentenced for the breach charges on Oct. 20. The sentence was delivered by Yukon Supreme Court Chief Justice Suzanne Duncan, who had also presided over the trial earlier in the week. Keeping with a joint sentencing submission agreed to by the Crown and defence lawyers, Duncan imposed a suspended sentence and three years of probation with a variety of conditions.
The most significant of the conditions is an order that Kotchea stay 20 kilometres away from Watson Lake for the duration of his probation and that he not contact the people he was alleged to have assaulted.
Duncan said the sentence considers two mitigating factors: Kotchea’s residential school attendance and the variety of counselling and courses he has attended while incarcerated and the need to make reparation to the community by keeping him far from Watson Lake for the duration of his probation. The court heard community impact statements prior to Kotchea’s sentencing.
Kotchea’s case had drawn significant attention and condemnation from the community, particularly the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society which organized protests outside the Whitehorse and Watson Lake courthouses during preliminary hearings of the case.
Kotchea did not take his formal opportunity to address the court but did speak up as Duncan was reading the sentence, acknowledging that he would not go to Watson Lake or contact the people he has been ordered not to. Through his lawyer, he acknowledged that if he plans to leave the territory during his probation, he will be doing so by air, as even driving the Alaska Highway through Watson Lake isn’t acceptable.
Prior to trial, Kotchea had been in custody for 29 months. The court heard that he was denied bail largely due to the 39 convictions for offences against legal processes on his record. Following the Oct. 20 sentencing, he walked free.
At the outset of the trial, Crown counsel Sarah Bailey said the case would really be about giving the complainants a chance to tell the court in their own words what happened that night. She said further context through other testimony would show that both people who said Kotchea assaulted them suffered serious injuries at a house Kotchea was located near.
Along with the complainants, the court heard from RCMP officers and a doctor who treated the injured people at the Watson Lake Hospital. The doctor detailed the severe injuries which included fractures in one of the victim’s facial bones.
Following the sentencing, Kevin Drolet, who served as Kotchea’s lawyer at sentencing, said it was deficiencies in the complainants’ testimony that left the court unable to find his client guilty of the assault charges.
He said the key issues with their testimony were their intoxication at the time of the assault and evidence that their memories of the events were fragmented and contaminated by input from other people who were not there when the alleged assaults took place.
He also noted that some forensic evidence was poorly handled and said that a stronger circumstantial case would have needed to be built to secure a conviction given the problems with the injured people’s recollections.
“The defence’s case really hinged on an investigation that was inadequate to support complaints by two extremely vulnerable members of the community,” Drolet said.
Contact Jim Elliot at firstname.lastname@example.org