The Watson Lake man who pleaded guilty to beating an elder to death in 2016 has been sentenced to just more than four-and-a-half years’ in jail.
Alfred Chief Jr., now 33, pleaded guilty to manslaughter earlier this year for causing the death of 87-year-old Kaska elder Olson Wolftail, admitting that, even though he has no memory of the events, that during a night of drinking, he killed Wolftail in his own home.
Territorial court judge Michael Cozens sentenced Chief to four years and seven-and-a-half months’ imprisonment in a Whitehorse courtroom the morning of Sept. 21.
With credit for the time he’s already spent in custody, that means Chief will serve an additional two years less a day. He will also be subject to a probation order for three years after his release, with conditions including to not consume any drugs or alcohol, attend counselling as directed, complete 120 hours of community service and not have any contact with several members of Wolftail’s family.
Members of both Wolftail and Chief’s families were present in court Friday morning, with Wolftail’s sitting behind the Crown while Chief’s sat behind him and the defence table. Chief, dressed in red Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) scrubs, shook the hands of two young boys as he was brought into the courtroom.
Throughout his decision, which took more than an hour to read, Cozens acknowledged the devastating effect that Wolftail’s death has had on members of his family, who, in victim impact statements, had described him as a beloved elder who was the glue that held them all together.
No sentence could ever make up for Wolftail’s loss, Cozens said, and the sentence that he would impose on Chief shouldn’t be seen as reflecting the value or worth of Wolftail’s life as it was “priceless.”
The judge went on to devote a significant portion of his decision to outlining circumstances of Chief’s life — many of them Gladue factors — that he took into consideration when determining a sentence.
Chief suffers from the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, Cozens said, and had a difficult childhood where many of the adults around him abused alcohol. Chief himself started drinking alcohol when he was seven years old following a traumatic incident where his uncle had fired a gun at him and his father, Cozens said, and would continue to abuse alcohol into adulthood.
Chief has been diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), Cozens continued, and has significant learning and comprehension disabilities. He also appears to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder largely related to the trauma he’s experienced throughout his life as well as Wolftail’s death, even though he doesn’t remember it.
Those factors, which show Chief’s “diminished moral blameworthiness,” along with the fact that Chief pleaded guilty, has shown remorse for his actions and has taken advantage of the programming at the WCC are all mitigating, Cozens said. However, the judge said he also took into account aggravating factors, which included the level of violence Chief used against Wolftail, that Chief attacked Wolftail in his own home, where he should have been safe, Chief’s extensive criminal record and the unpredictability of Chief’s violence.
Cozens said that while a five-year custodial sentence would be appropriate for the crime, it raised practical questions. Chief is entitled to two years and seven-and-a-half months of custody for the time he’s already spent in custody, Cozens noted; with a five-year sentence, that would mean Chief would have two years and four-and-a-half-months remaining. That remaining time would mean that Cozens would not be able to impose a probation order on Chief upon his release, as any sentence over two years less a day means an offender must be sent Outside to a federal institution.
Instead, Cozens opted to order Chief to serve an additional two years, less a day, so that he could remain at the WCC and continue the treatment he’s already receiving. That sentence also enabled Cozens to impose a three-year probation order — the maximum length of a probation order allowed under the law — which he said was both for the protection of the public and to help rehabilitate Chief.
After he finished reading his decision, Cozens turned to address Chief.
Although many negative factors about his life had been highlighted in the decision, Cozens told Chief, that doesn’t mean that he cannot live a “positive life” and “learn to be better than you have been.”
“You owe that to your children, you owe it to your family, but in my opinion, you owe it most of all to the family of Mr. Wolftail,” he said.
In a phone interview after the sentencing, one of Wolftail’s daughters, Kathy Magun, said she was “shocked” at the sentence and had expected Chief to at least receive the Crown’s suggested sentence of six to eight years, if not “10 times” more than that.
“It’s like (Chief) got a new lease on life and my dad is no longer here… How is that justice? I just feel so devastated,” she said, describing her father as a respectable, traditional Kaska elder who had also been “touched by all the elements” that Chief had been.
Her father was a hard-working, self-sufficient person who wasn’t able to walk or defend himself in any way when Chief began his “vicious” attack, she added.
“I just feel so heartbroken for my dad, you know? … He didn’t deserve to die that way,” Magun said. “I just feel so devastated by the whole process and I just feel like, right now, this minute, I feel like there’s no justice and (I’m) thinking the law needs to be re-looked at. Maybe it’s time for that… Because I just feel like today, justice wasn’t served. I just feel so hurt.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org