Sexting advocate claims injustice in Rehtaeh Parsons case – despite guilty pleas

A screen capture of a comment Parker Donham made on Facebook about the child pornography charges -- after the first of two guilty pleas.

A screen capture of a comment Parker Donham made on Facebook about the child pornography charges — after the first of two guilty pleas. On Monday, a second boy pleaded guilty to distributing the photo that was used to shame and bully Rehtaeh Parsons.

Sexting advocate Parker Donham says an injustice has been committed against the two boys who pleaded guilty in the Rehtaeh Parsons case and is using the publicity around the case to champion for changes to an “overly broad law.”

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? No, I’m not kidding you, it’s true. I might be guilty of putting a little spin on that lede, but it’s exactly what Parker does. If anyone tells you a journalist does not put spin on their copy, don’t believe them. Parker does and he takes spin to Spinal Tap levels.

Don’t take my word for it, go read Parker’s blog titled Moral Panic Makes Bad Law.

In promoting his blog on Facebook, Parker suggests that the court cases in which two boys pleaded guilty involved “a trumped up charge to appease media demands that the boys be punished.”

One might think Parker is just following the advice of the late great George Carlin to “question everything.” If you’re an adherent to that philosophy, you should also question Parker, especially because he is prone to making erroneous assumptions in addition to applying copious amounts of spin to his arguments.

Exhibit 1: He assumes there is no evidence to support sexual assault charges when the agreed statement of facts read in court suggest otherwise. He was not in court either day and seemingly is not aware of these agreed statements of fact. These facts might not convict, but there is other evidence available, and more could have been obtained by police if they simply did their job properly.

Exhibit 2: In his blog, Parker writes that child pornography law is a result of “moral panic” that is leading to “a flurry of child pornography charges against youngsters guilty only of entirely consensual sexting.”

When making that claim, Parker links to this post about a case in British Columbia.

On a more careful examination of the case Parker cites, we realize that while the sexting might have been consensual originally, the criminal charges arose from actions that took place after a relationship ended and could in no way be described as consensual.

For a more accurate description of that case read this. Parker didn’t link to that, or provide more details, because it doesn’t fit his narrative. He is constructing a paper dragon and the only valid argument he is making is that what happened in the Rehtaeh Parsons case does not fit the definition of child pornography that most of us have come to understand.

Of course it is not “child porn” according to that definition, but don’t get sidetracked by our contrarian crusader’s argument. Consider these key points instead:

  1. What the boys did fits the legal definition of child pornography as set down by Parliament. A judge has ruled thus on two occasions. For someone so concerned about the rule of law, Parker should give this more credence. If he doesn’t like these rulings, he should ask Parliament to change the name of the law. Remember, Parker has said what the boys did was “disgraceful and reprehensible.” Presumably, he also thinks it should be prohibited by law as he has said he would have even supported voyeurism charges under Section 162 of the Criminal Code. As best as I can tell, Parker’s only valid objection is the labelling of the crime. This is hardly something that supports an assertion that in “injustice” has been done.
  1. The facts known to police would support laying at least one charge of sexual assault, perhaps two, with a reasonable likelihood of conviction. If you don’t know what this evidence is, open your eyes and keep an open mind. “There are two sides to every story” is something we keep hearing in this case. The truth is somewhere in between the two sides — but not in the middle. That’s because some people simply don’t understand the laws concerning sexual consent in this country. This is the discussion we should be having. It is of monumental importance.
  2. Additionally, this information should have been used by police to elicit more evidence to support those charges, and perhaps others, but the police investigation was woefully inadequate and misdirected, according to Leah Parsons and Glen Canning. Their complaints have sufficient merit that it has prompted the province to hire Murray Segal, the former Deputy Attorney General and Chief Prosecutor of Ontario, to review the way the police and the Public Prosecution Service handled the case. Segal’s review is on hold, but will resume when these criminal proceedings conclude in January.
  3. Whatever legitimate concerns Parker might have about sexting being criminalized pale in comparison to the more pressing concerns this case is about: cyber-bullying, sexual consent, and suicide prevention. Furthermore, to bring them up in connection with this case and suggest that an injustice has been done against the boys is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read an intelligent person write.
  4. The police, prosecutors and judiciary in this province do not do anything to “appease an enraged public and media.” They do their job and when they fail, they can enrage the public and media which prompts them to actually do their job. That is why we have freedom of the press, to hold our public officials accountable. We don’t have freedom of the press to conscript them into lynch mobs and that is certainly not what happened here. If the police and Crown laid a charge to appease an “enraged press and public,” it makes no sense that they would lay a charge that would automatically invoke a publication ban when another law, voyeurism, was available to them. A more likely motive for the “child porn” charge is that there would be a statutory publication ban – not one that would leave a judge with some discretion. This creates a disconnect from the court proceedings to the handling of the case between November 2011 and April 2013 – the handling that will be under review. The media and public would most certainly have preferred a voyeurism charge so that Rehtaeh Parsons’ name could be published without restriction.

Sometimes, being a contrarian is a good thing. We need contrarians because they challenge us to think and question the zeitgeist. However, this is a cautionary tale about how being a knee-jerk contrarian can put you far out on a ledge — in an untenable position maintained only by stubbornness, not reason.

In a parting cheap shot at journalists who are doing their job and ensuring that public officials are held accountable, Parker writes in his Facebook teaser for the blog post: “This is not the Nova Scotia news media’s finest hour” and refers to some as “journocutors.”

Not our finest hour? Parker, none of us claims to be as perfect as you, but at least we are not creating a distraction from the more important discussions that actually pertain to this case.

If there is fault here, it is with you for creating this attention-seeking distraction. Most importantly, though, the fault lies with the public institutions that failed Rehtaeh Parsons, and not with the media and the public that is seeking justice.

Now, let’s get back to our more important discussions.

Second guilty plea in Rehtaeh Parsons case

A sexually degrading photograph of Rehtaeh Parsons was shared at her school as part of relentless cyber-bullying by classmates and even friends.

A sexually degrading photograph of Rehtaeh Parsons was shared at her school as part of relentless cyber-bullying perpetrated by classmates and even friends.

A second boy has pleaded guilty in the Rehtaeh Parsons case.

This time, the boy admitted to distributing the photo that was used to shame Rehtaeh Parsons. This boy, who is also in the picture, is giving the “thumbs-up” sign while standing behind Parsons as she leans out a window to puke.

In an agreed statement of facts read aloud in a Halifax courtroom, Crown Prosecutor Alex Smith says the boy was “having sex” with Parsons at the time, that she did not know the photograph was taken, and that she did not consent to it being taken.

Glen Canning, Parsons’ father, says this raises a vital question.

“They can go on about how Rehtaeh didn’t give consent to this photograph being taken yet for some reason she was able to give consent for sex? Rehtaeh was not in a position to give consent, not just to the photo, but to anything else going on that the photograph shows and that’s why our family is so angry and upset by this. This should have been a charge of sexual assault that’s exactly what it was. There’s no other way that anyone can describe that photo.”

Canning says he can’t imagine there being a case for sexual assault having more evidence than this – a photograph and a confession on social media – and yet there has never been a charge of sexual assault laid in connection to the events that occurred on Nov. 12, 2011 – before and after the photo was taken. The boy who took the photo pleaded guilty on Sept. 22 and was sentenced on Nov. 13. He was given a conditional discharge. That boy, and the boy who changed his plea to guilty today, can’t be named because their identities are protected by Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act. There is also a publication ban on the identity of Rehtaeh Parsons because she is the victim in a child pornography case. However, her parents and the Crown opposed that ban, and a judge has said that the ban does not actually protect her identity. This post respectfully disobeys the ban as it applies in this case because there is no public interest served in prosecuting people who violate the ban and a greater public good is served by mentioning her name in this and other important discussions.

No charges were laid while Rehtaeh was alive. After she died in April 2013, the police reopened the case and new information came to light. Four months later, charges of producing and distributing child pornography were laid against two of the four boys alleged to have sexually assaulted her.

“New information came forward after Rehtaeh died, but the RCMP told me there was nothing in that new evidence that told them something they didn’t already know,” Canning said.

Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mom, said her daughter lost the very essence of who she was when that photo was taken and distributed around her school. One of the people who spread it around the school was a friend of Rehtaeh’s, Parsons said. Equally disturbing, the police did nothing to stop it.

“Originally, they said it was child pornography and that they were going to lay charges of sexual assault and child pornography,” Parsons said outside court today. “Within a month, that changed. The photo itself, I was told it was a community issue and not a police issue.”

And now, the person who took that photo and the person who started to spread it around the school to bully and shame Rehtaeh Parsons have both pleaded guilty to criminal charges arising from that.

Canning and Parsons hope their questions will be answered when Murray Segal reviews the way the RCMP and the Public Prosecution Service handled this case. The Nova Scotia Justice department hired Segal, the former Deputy Attorney General and Chief Prosecutor of Ontario, but he has put his review on hold until the conclusion of the criminal matters before the court. Segal will resume his review after that.

The youth who pleaded guilty today will return to court Jan. 15, 2015 for sentencing. His lawyer, Brian Church, declined to speak to reporters after today’s hearing.

The simple solution to publication ban in Rehtaeh Parsons case

I appreciated the comments from the caller.
When I decided to break the publication ban, I did so despite the fact that some people would accuse me of doing it for publicity reasons. Anybody who thought — or still thinks — that I did this for publicity reasons didn’t think it through.
I am putting myself at risk of being charged with a criminal offence. There is no doubt in my mind that I am breaking the law. My only saving grace is that it is not in the public interest to prosecute me, just as it’s not in the public interest to prosecute the others who have violated the ban. In addition, the police would also have to charge Glen Canning and Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s parents, and that would be a public relations disaster.
If there was so much to be gained from this, why has no other media outlet or journalist in Canada broken the ban? For four months, the opportunity was there and no one took it.
More importantly, there is a simple solution to the publication ban. It doesn’t require Parliament to change this law, which is a good law. It will simply allow people to use Rehtaeh Parsons’ name without restrictions.
The solution, described in my post on Oct. 22, lies with our Attorney General and Justice Minister. Let your MLA know and, more importantly, let a member of Nova Scotia’s Liberal government know what you think about this case.

Lawyer David Fraser pans publication ban in Rehtaeh Parsons case

David Fraser is absolutely right. It’s time to end this discussion about the publication ban and shift our focus back to the more important discussions we need to have about cyber-bullying, sexual consent, suicide prevention, and accountability for public officials.
Justice might never come for Rehtaeh Parsons, but at least we can use her memory to learn some valuable lessons and help inform some important discussions.

Accused in Rehtaeh Parsons case set free

rehtaeh parsons

The boy who took the picture used to shame Rehtaeh Parsons was set free today and won’t spend a day in jail.

The accused, now 20, pleaded guilty in September to production of child pornography. He took a picture of Rehtaeh Parsons and his co-accused. Parsons was puking out a window while the other boy mugged for the camera and gave a thumbs-up sign. Despite admitting his guilt, he won’t go to jail and will have 12 months to meet certain conditions. If he meets them, he will receive a conditional discharge. He will not be put on probation.

Some will say this is a travesty of justice, but Glen Canning – Rehtaeh’s dad – said there won’t be justice until there are charges of sexual assault in the case.

The most telling moment of today’s sentencing came when Judge Greg Lenehan said the 20-year-old Eastern Shore man who took the picture should have known better and told him to consider what he would have wanted someone else to do if it was his sister being violated while she was puking out the window.

“The image you took is an example of the objectification of girls and women,” Lenehan said to him.

The accused shifted uncomfortably on the bench and looked nervous. Then muscles on his face twitched as he seemed to realize the cruelty of what he did.

Lenehan told him he “should never forget the promising, vibrant young life that was eventually destroyed by his choice to record an act of sexual degradation.”

“You did, in a few seconds, set in motion a series of events that led to a great deal of shame, humiliation, anger, despair, anguish, loss, hurt, and destruction for Ms. Parsons, her family, you, your family, and for the entire community.”

Lenehan told him the moment he captured on camera was “not a trophy moment, but that is certainly what it was portrayed as.”

In the era of cellphones when people seem to document everything, this was not a moment to be documented, the judge said.

Despite the tragic impact of the accused’s actions, Lenehan said he had to take into consideration the prime purpose of Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act, which emphasizes rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The accused, who was 17 at the time of the incident three years ago, has already shown signs of doing that.

“I accept that he is genuinely remorseful. I think he is quite sickened by the realization that his decision eventually led Rehtaeh Parsons to fall into the deep dark hole of despair from which she could not extricate herself. His actions led to a series of events that eventually drained her of her very essence.”

The accused has been suffering from anxiety and insomnia since the death of Rehtaeh Parsons in April 2013. Lenehan said the accused’s confession to police in August 2013 and his guilty plea on Sept. 22 are all factors that bode well for his rehabilitation. He has a full-time job, has not been in trouble with the law since the incident, nor was he ever in trouble with the law before that.

“This is a very difficult sentencing,” Lenehan said. “Nothing I can do can compensate for her tragic loss of life. There is no measure that could ever properly reflect her value.”

Despite the public calls for revenge, he stressed youth court is “not a court of retribution” and so gave the youth a conditional discharge while imposing some conditions. The accused must seek counselling for 12 months, provide a DNA sample, and write an apology to Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents.

“You are also required to locate and attend, successfully complete a course on sexual harassment,” Lenehan said. “It’s vitally important that you understand how you can interact and treat all females as you go forward.”

“I do not want to hamstring you. I do want to encourage you to become a productive member of society. I want you to be the type of young man that if you ever see somebody humiliating or treating a girl or a woman in any fashion that would call into question their dignity or worth, that you would not stand by and be an observer; that you would be the type of person that would say ‘This needs to stop’ and you would stop it.”

The other accused in this case will stand trial on distribution of child pornography charges on Nov. 24. His father was in court watching today’s proceedings.

Believing: it’s important, but only the first step

Lucy DeCoutere and Reva Seth accuse Jian Ghomeshi of assault and sexual assault.

Lucy DeCoutere and Reva Seth accuse Jian Ghomeshi of assault and sexual assault. The separate incidents are both alleged to have occurred more than 10 years ago.

Journalists often face tough ethical decisions. To decide what to do, we often follow guidelines or policies – founded on principles. One such principle is that you don’t use anonymous sources unless a person’s life or job is at risk if you identify them.

That’s a good policy and normally I would agree with that. I’m a big believer in saying what you mean, meaning what you say, and putting your name to it. However, in the case of the Jian Ghomeshi allegations, The Toronto Star knew the names of four women they interviewed, but didn’t print them and that was used by some to undermine the credibility of the women. Three women say that the former CBC radio host assaulted them while a fourth accused him of making lewd remarks and groping her.

If it was a 1 vs. 1, the Star probably wouldn’t have gone with the story, despite the reputation Ghomeshi had. But Jesse Brown was willing to investigate the story after getting the first call and got similar stories from four women. Amazingly, Jesse Brown said on Twitter that this story still wasn’t going to run and was dead in the water until Ghomeshi’s now infamous Facebook post on Oct. 26 gave the Star “what it needed to publish.”

That four vs. one justified protecting their identities because it was clearly a story about a pattern that had to be told. When it was told, it became an 8 vs. 1, with someone willing to be identified, then 9 vs. 1, with two willing to be identified, and now we have two women filing a complaint with the police. Do you see how this is trending?

We were at the edge of a cliff, looking across a narrow gorge to another cliff. It was a place we had to get to and the only way to get there was to jump. But no, we have a policy of never jumping off cliffs. You know what policies can be sometimes? Not merely guidelines, but excuses to avoid making important decisions. This is life, there are no absolutes, so saying you always have to follow a policy or a guideline is the easy way out.

Every day, the way we treat other people is an important step in improving the world. But there are times when all of us – not just journalists – are going to be presented with an opportunity to make a greater impact on the society or world we live in. Often, it will present itself as an option between doing the right thing or following a policy.

When faced with that decision, consider the implications and ask yourself these questions. What kind of world do I want? Do I have to chance to make this a better world –– not just for yourself, but for others? Clearly, the status quo needs some improvements. When women like Lucy DeCoutere and Reva Seth can experience what they went through and don’t come forward because they don’t think their allegations will be taken seriously, our society has a serious problem. A problem that won’t go away if we leave it to others to change. Awareness and moral support are great, but acting when you get a chance to make a difference is what we really need.

Like when reporter Jesse Brown believed that woman. Then three more joined her and were brave enough to share their story with the world.

Now, Toronto police are investigating Ghomeshi.

Time for Nova Scotia’s Attorney General to step up

Landry Herschorn copy

Director of Public Prosecutions Martin Herschorn (left) and former Justice Minister Ross Landry.

Last fall, Nova Scotia’s Liberal government coasted to an easy electoral victory and among their many promises was a commitment to spend $6 million during a three-year span to boost funding to sexual assault support centres and create a prevention strategy.

Seven months after taking power, Lena Metlege Diab, the Liberal government’s Justice Minister and Attorney General, had an opportunity to do something to prevent sexual assault and failed to do it.

Although there have been no charges of sexual assault in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, it has been alleged that sexual assault took place. The definition of sexual consent is integral to the case and there is a great opportunity to educate people about this.

In light of what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons, keeping her name in a public discussion about sexual consent and cyberbullying — and allowing the media to use her name without restriction — would serve a clear public benefit to women, men, girls, and boys.

As the Attorney General, Metlege Diab has the power to order the Public Prosecution Service to not prosecute any media that violate the publication ban in this case. It says so right in the Public Prosecutions Act.

Power and duties of Attorney General:

6 The Attorney General is the minister responsible for the prosecution service and is accountable to the Assembly for all prosecutions to which this Act applies and

(a) after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions, may issue general instructions or guidelines in respect of all prosecutions, or a class of prosecutions, to the prosecution service … (and)

(b) after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions, may issue instructions or guidelines in a particular prosecution …

So, given that Metlege Diab has the power, it is disappointing that she wouldn’t exercise it in the Rehtaeh Parsons case. Furthermore, it is odd that if she is the elected person who must answer to the Legislative Assembly, and ultimately the people of this province, that she would let a bureaucrat speak on her behalf. That’s what she did when she let Martin Herschorn, the Director of Public Prosecutions, respond to letters from Nancy Rubin, a lawyer representing the media, and Glen Canning, the father of Rehtaeh Parsons, in which they requested a pronouncement that violations of the publication ban would not be prosecuted.

In the letter, Herschorn said it was “unprecedented for this Service and inappropriate in this context” to issue the pronouncement.

Here’s the catch though, it’s not unprecedented. Michael Baker did it in 2003 to prevent a waste of resources prosecuting firearms registration offences because they would soon be made legal. As for it being inappropriate, with all due respect to Mr. Herschorn, he’s wrong. It is the right thing to do because protecting the identity of a girl who has died, and who became a household name when she committed suicide because the justice system failed her, is the prime example of doing too little, too late.

As if refusing to act wasn’t enough, Herschorn went one step further to seemingly create the perfect Catch-22. He said the Public Prosecution Service only gets involved in reviewing cases once a crime has been committed and once a charge is laid. Essentially, the only way for the Public Prosecution Service would offer an opinion on this matter would be for the media to take the risk of breaking the ban and hoping they wouldn’t be prosecuted. So far, no mainstream media have taken what is a minimal risk, but there have been exceptions.

Glen Canning has broken the ban, Leah Parsons has broken the ban, and I’ve broken the ban. So far, none of us have been charged. Come on in folks, the water’s fine.

Much is made of the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service being the first in Canada to be independent from political control. This is a good thing, but before you start the slow clap, let’s take a look back at why Nova Scotia did this back in 1990. It wasn’t some bold innovation. On the contrary, it was cod liver oil served up to the politicians by the Marshall Inquiry.

Two prominent members of John Buchanan’s Tory government – Billy Joe MacLean and Roland Thornhill — were deemed to have received preferential treatment by prosecutors during criminal investigations. The Marshall Inquiry said that, in both cases, the Attorney General of the day relied on misleading or poor reports from Deputy Attorney General Gordon Coles and recommended that the public prosecution service be largely independent of political control.

Nowadays, the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service touts itself as being an independent body and it seems proud, almost strident about that, but they act as if the Attorney General, who is answerable to the Legislature, the government and the people of this province, can’t tell them how to do their job.

She can, just has to do it in a public way and can’t give hush-hush orders to protect political cronies or friends. This limitation on the operational independence of the Director of Public Prosecutions is spelled out on the department’s website.

The Attorney General can issue written instructions to the Director of Public Prosecutions and these instructions are binding, but must be made public. The purpose of this is explained by the following excerpt:

This procedure preserves the ultimate prosecutorial authority of the Attorney General. This is a means of ensuring accountability to the electorate for the manner in which public prosecutions are conducted.

In this case, Metlege Diab would make a public pronouncement that would be well-received by the electorate, but so far, her inaction on this issue is as disappointing as the original reaction of her predecessor Ross Landry, the NDP Justice Minister who made this callous remark on April 9, 2013, two days after Rehtaeh Parsons was taken off life support:

“If the evidence isn’t in place, we can’t second-guess every investigation.”

Remember, this is a ban that Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents don’t want, an Ontario Crown Attorney prosecuting the case doesn’t want, and one which Judge Jamie Campbell said doesn’t serve any purpose in this case. So, while the learned judge was rightly applying the law, common sense and justice get short shrift.

As a result of this ban, organizers of two events in Ontario (one in Kingston, the other in Cornwall) have cancelled public speaking engagements for Glen Canning.

That’s the chill that has been created by this ban and it’s got to stop. This is a tremendous opportunity for Nova Scotia’s first female Attorney General to do the right thing.

One of the accused is due back in court for sentencing on Nov. 13 and the other is scheduled for a trial later in the month.

By then, let’s hope that Metlege Diab has given the media the green light to use Rehtaeh Parsons’ name again – without restrictions.