Light N.W.T. sex-assault sentence highlights aboriginal ‘circumstances’

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Recently, we wrote about a Montreal street-racer who got an “outrageous” light sentence for killing two innocent people and leaving another permanently disabled. It raised questions about appropriate sentencing, but also the mitigating factors in punishing serious crimes.

A recent case in the Northwest Territories lends a new perspective to those questions and sheds light on how personal and societal circumstances can affect sentences even for serious offences.

In 2013, Molson Mitchell Romie had non-consensual sex with a 17-year-old girl identified only as L.F.

Charged with sexual assault under s. 271 of the Criminal Code, Romie could have faced a maximum 10 years in jail.

However, the defence requested two years less a day, while the Crown recommended just two-and-a-half years. The judge backed the former.

Why so light? In his decision, Judge L.A. Charbonneau enumerated several important reasons for his eventual sentence.

Aboriginal background: s. 718 of the Criminal Code advises judges to “consider the circumstances” of aboriginal offenders when imposing sentence.

What does that mean? The Supreme Court of Canada elaborated in its 1999 R. v. Gladue decision:

“In sentencing an aboriginal offender, the judge must consider … the unique systemic or background factors which may have played a part in bringing the particular aboriginal offender before the courts,” the ruling reads, in part. “In order to undertake these considerations the sentencing judge will require information pertaining to the accused. Judges may take judicial notice of the broad systemic and background factors affecting aboriginal people.”

It turns out Romie had a very troubled background that the judge took into account.

Romie’s father attended a residential school where “bad things” happened to him. There was alcohol abuse and violence in his childhood home and he was alternately cared for by different aunts and his grandmother. As an infant, he was in the care of an uncle who committed suicide. Romie himself developed a problem with alcohol abuse.

“I have, as I am required to, taken judicial notice of systemic and background factors that have impacted Mr. Romie as well as his specific circumstances,” Charbonneau noted.

“I want to add, though, that in ensuring that the sentence takes into account Mr. Romie's circumstances and the challenges he faced as an aboriginal person, the Court must also ensure that the sentence also does justice to his victim.”

 

Guilty plea: as in the Montreal street-racing case, pleading guilty can have a significant impact on a sentence. In Romie’s case, the judge pointed to several positive repercussions of a guilty plea.

  • Sparing the victim: “A guilty plea in a sexual assault case is always significant because it spares the victim from having to come to court to talk about very traumatic events and very intimate, personal things,” Charbonneau said. “I know that sparing someone from that is sparing them a lot.” 
  • Certainty of outcome: Charbonneau said a guilty plea shows “that the events did occur as reported” and “There can be no lingering suspicion that somehow the accusation was a false one.”
  • Remorse: While many offenders express remorse, a judge weighs how sincere they feel that apology is. It also demonstrates willingness to accept responsibility. Charbonneau said he felt Romie was genuinely remorseful.

 

Character: at the sentencing hearing, witnesses testified that Romie is a hardworking father and loving grandson and who makes genuine contributions to his community.

Ultimately, Charbonneau said the sentence must ensure “deterrence and denunciation is addressed while also supporting (Romie’s) rehabilitation.”

In his ruling, Charbonneau took into account that Romie had already served six months. He also decreed that the remaining two years be served in the Northwest Territories, where Romie had access to family and a support network.

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