Guilty plea in Rehtaeh Parsons case

rehtaeh parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide in April 2013. Her death helped spark a new police investigation.

A young man who took the picture used to shame and bully Rehtaeh Parsons has pleaded guilty to production of child pornography.

He admitted to taking the picture of another boy, a co-accused in the case, who was in the picture with Rehtaeh in November 2011 when he was 17 and Rehtaeh was 15. Neither of the accused, who were both under 18 at the time, can be named. Their identities are protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Crown Attorney Alex Smith read an agreed statement of facts to Halifax Provincial Court Judge Greg Lenehan.

Smith describes the image which shows one boy, naked from the waist down, behind Rehtaeh and pressing his genital region up against her while giving a thumbs-up sign. Rehtaeh Parsons is naked from the waist down.

“At the time the photograph was taken, (one of the accused) was having sex with Rehtaeh Parsons as she was vomiting out the window,” Smith told the court.

The youth in court today faced charges of production and distribution of child pornography. The Crown dropped the charge of distribution.

Another boy, the one in the picture who is charged only with distribution of child pornography, is scheduled to go on trial in November.

There is also a publication ban on the identity of the victim, Rehtaeh Parsons, despite the opposition of the Crown Attorney and her parents. Four Nova Scotia media outlets fought the ban in May, but Judge Jamie Campbell said it was a statutory ban that he had to impose – even though it didn’t make sense because her name was already so well known. In reporting this story today, media outlets continue to observe the ban.

It is the law of the country and judges must do their duty and enforce the law passed by Parliament. That is why the judge cannot be faulted in this case.

This post respectfully disregards the publication ban because a greater public good is served by doing so.

There is a higher goal than upholding the law and that is justice; something that judges, especially those that practice judicial restraint, sometimes do not consider.

There is an oft-told story of a conversation between two great American jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Learned Hand, who met for lunch one day.

As Holmes began to drive away, Hand implored him to “Do justice, sir, do justice!”

Holmes stopped and admonished his fellow judge with this retort: “That is not my job. It is my job to apply the law.”

In the absence of an activist judge, or an Attorney General or Director of Public Prosecutions willing to make a public pronouncement that no charges will be laid in this case, it is left to the media to wonder about the safety of violating the ban.

Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Civil Disobedience, encouraged people to disobey what he called “unjust laws.”

Thoreau wrote: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

Let me be clear. It’s not that this law is unjust. It is that it is unjust in this case and should be ignored.

Clearly, this is an exception that Parliament did not think of when they passed the law and they need to amend it.

Lastly, there is a clause in the Youth Criminal Justice Act that allows for the parents of a victim to waive the privacy rights of their children. Glen Canning and Leah Parsons have done so in this case, but Judge Campbell chose not to accept that argument, saying that the Criminal Code provision wins the day – even though it doesn’t really make any sense in this case. See decision here.

Rehtaeh Parsons’ name brings power to any discussion about sexual consent, cyber-bullying, and suicide prevention. Her case prompted important legal reforms in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada. The federal government, which is working on passing Bill C-13 to counter cyber-bullying, is doing so partly because of what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons.

Most importantly, this change of plea needs to be connected to the case at a time when publication of her name was permitted.


Because of the way the police and the Public Prosecution Service handled the case. Initially, the police focussed their investigation — such as it was — on sexual assault after an incident in November 2011. They spent most of their early efforts investigating Rehtaeh and took a long time – several months – before interviewing the four teenage boys alleged to have raped her when she was extremely intoxicated.

The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service reviewed the case, but didn’t lay charges because there wasn’t a strong enough likelihood of a conviction. It was dubbed a “he said, she said” case amid claims that Rehtaeh had made advances, or at least appeared willing earlier in the evening.

By the time the picture was taken, as the agreed statement of facts read into court today would indicate, Rehtaeh was not in any state to be consenting to sex.

Amazingly, the existence of a photograph of a minor engaged in a sexual act did not spark law enforcement professionals involved in the investigation to consider laying a charge of production and distribution of child pornography. Canning said police and school officials knew of the photo’s existence within a week of it being taken.

“They allowed this image to spread even knowing that this was child pornography. They knew who had it and who was doing it and there was nothing done to stop it,” he said. “Every time it was shared, it victimized Rehtaeh.”

The photo spread like wildfire through her community in a suburb of Halifax. Fellow students called Rehtaeh Parsons a slut and some total strangers texted her and asked her if she wanted to have sex with them. The bullying became too much so she switched schools and sought counselling. She claimed she was raped, but no charges were laid and this added to the grief. She struggled for months, but in April 2013, she committed suicide by hanging herself in the bathroom with a belt.

Her case attracted worldwide attention and even prompted the intervention of Anonymous, who started #OpJustice4Rehtaeh to get the police to reopen the case. The police reopened the case and, amid the furor, some people defended the four boys saying that the sex was consensual.

Within a few months, the police laid charges of production and distribution of child pornography against two of the four boys, but some claimed it was just a way to put an end to mounting public pressure.

Today’s guilty plea should put an end to those claims.

When Judge Greg Lenehan told the young man to meet with a probation officer and cooperate with them in the preparation of a pre-sentence report, he responded in a subdued voice. “Yes, sir.”

He is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Nov. 13.

For Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, nothing will ever bring her daughter back. But keeping her memory alive and using it to make some important changes, means a great deal to her.

“None of it is enough, but the fact that he’s pleading guilty is some consolation,” she said. “I do feel some solace in that she just wanted to be validated and she wanted people to know that this actually happened to her.”

33 comments on “Guilty plea in Rehtaeh Parsons case

  1. Sherry Annand says:

    THANK YOU for publishing her name!

  2. Janet Chernin says:

    Thank you for being a journalist with a moral backbone, thank you for thoughtful and succinct analysis of this tragic case. Denying the publication of Rehtaeh’s name has been a dishonour to her memory and a slap in the face to her family and friends.

    • Thank you, Janet. I was a little disappointed that no media outlet chose to violate the ban. I’ve laid out a compelling case for some of Canada’s biggest and edgiest media outlets and journalists. None saw fit to violate the ban on this day, when saying her name was most important.

      • Dad says:

        Once upon a time there was….
        That horse had very beautiful….
        Mr. Smith once said that he ….
        The moon was very bright and…
        …How can you create an honest story with half of the facts ??

        I have to say thank you as well. See you soon .

        Editor’s note: This comment was made by a person who has not identified themself. I don’t believe in silencing dissenting viewpoints as long as they are made respectfully and based on facts or logic. It is also important to identify yourself and, if you can’t do that, provide a good reason why. I will allow this comment, but henceforth, all commenters must provide a valid e-mail address by which I can verify their identity.

  3. judy sims says:

    This is a heart breaking story, and it isn’t even close to the first time I have heard it. We have to put it out there to make a clear statement about values as much as law. On what level is this behaviour okay? In adolescence? In party mode? In states of group mentality? Under the influence? Or quite clearly not at all. There are no blurred lines here, under age cannot consent, under the influence cannot consent, and I have no words to express my sadness that this then becomes a photo op? A shared post? How very far from empathy, and compassion does the separation of a cell phone picture and a human being become? I am grateful for the breach of the publication ban. I think this needs to be an on going dialogue.

    • Thanks, Judy. That’s why I mentioned Rehtaeh Parsons by name. It needs to be said in conjunction with today’s development. There is still much to be done, but the conversation has started.

  4. Jacqueline says:

    “At the time the photograph was taken, (one of the accused) was having sex with Rehtaeh Parsons as she was vomiting out the window.” This quote is not accurate in the sense that Rehtaeh was unable to consent. Therefore it was sexual assault, not sex. Sex is consensual between two consenting adults.

    • The quote is accurate in the sense that those are the words spoken in the courtroom. Please understand that in the courtroom, where there is a burden of proof required to use certain terms, lawyers would not use the term rape or sexual assault. It is alleged that a rape occurred and there appears to be some compelling evidence to support that claim.

      • Anon Nova Scotian says:

        I sincerely hope that rape charges are laid.
        If the picture shows her vomiting then either she had a really bad stomach flu or alcohol poisoning. Other evidence in the case shows that she was drinking alcohol, so the flu is doubtful.
        If a person has alcohol poisoning, they are incapable of giving consent.
        If the Solicitor General’s office does not lay charges of rape, then there should be a public inquiry as to why, since they will have failed miserably at their post.

  5. Nadia says:

    I know you have heard it, but I want to say it again. Thank you for mentioning her name. Rehtaeh Parson went through something no person should ever go threw. We will keep supporting and fighting the fight.. Great article and again proud of you Mr. Van Horne for doing what is right 🙂 Thank you!

  6. Kim kenney says:

    Thank you Ryan for writing this, this wrong will never be righted without the public’s awareness of the injustice this family has endured and the legal limitations which banned the use of her name. God bless people like yourself who know it makes a difference, Rehtaeh deserved justice in life and also now. Kudos

  7. Corinne says:

    You are one fine journalist Mr Van Horne.. The way I see it, if her parents wishes were for the publication ban to be lifted then it should have been lifted.. End of..
    Our entire system that is supposed to make you feel safe.. Police, school system all failed.. I really wish some of the adults that should have done something would also pay the price… They didn’t do their jobs.. And have covered it up.. It still baffles me that such a serious case was treated with such negligence

  8. have always wondered if the boys involved…. if they have a family member who is on the police force… or in law enforcement , lawyer or politician…. what is the reason the police didn’t want to do anything for Rehteah?

    • I don’t know if there is proof of inside influence. There are some good questions that have been raised about investigation methods by police and the amount of time they devoted to it. I have learned that a female police officer was the lead investigator. Hopefully more answers will come out when there is an inquiry after the criminal matters are wrapped up.

  9. Kathy McIsaac says:

    Bravo from Newfoundland , Ryan Van Horn!

    Ya done good and Rehtaeh Parsons is her name!!

  10. Tara Risser says:

    I just don’t think people took – or take, this stuff seriously. Someone obviously didn’t take Rehtaeh seriously. 😦 And we have to, considering the unlimited audience there is to many crimes, thanks to people who would rather record and send videos than do something to help. Sadly, the number of people doing so seems to be growing.

  11. Thank you Ryan Van Horne. This story is just so sad instead of help and support Rehtaeh Parsons and her family were further humiliated by the distribution of these photos. Clearly a girl who is vomting out a window is not giving consent. The people who could and didn’t get help for her and the ones who bullied her after she was victimized will carry that shame forever.
    I am sure your work is helping her family get relief from the frustration of having nothing done to help their daughter.
    I truly hope that Rehtaeh Parsons can rest in peace and that we all work to make a change so no one ever has to deal with this horrible pain again.

  12. Sherri Lamont says:

    Thank you for breaking the ban! Will there be any negative fall out legally for you? I’m just concerned for you but grateful for what you’ve done

    • I can’t say for sure, Sherri. I’ve carefully considered the risk, which unfortunately is still there, but I think given that I’ve used the same approach the Crown will take when considering charges, the chances are lower than some think.

  13. You should attempt to be more factual.
    You say ‘four boys’ when in fact one of the boys accused wasn’t even at the party.
    I suggest you read Christie Blatchford’s article about the case – it would have been almost impossible to make any of the charges valid in court.
    The court decided to ban the use of the name for a reason. You have chosen to put yourself above the wisdom of the court. So on one hand, you complain about law-breaking and no action being taken, then you break the law yourself.
    Although I can understand the anger and confusion stemming from this case, there is a danger – a big danger – that the perpetuation of use of her name might actually work against the wish to find some sort of justice for her. If the case had gone to court, or if it is revived, the entire story of that night will come out, and it may not reflect well on the poor girl.
    The whole thing is a tragic mess, and there’s a lot more to the entire story. Lessons have been learned. The boy who took the photo will be punished, as will the other boy. However, keeping the story alive beyond that will only bring more grief for the Parsons family if they pursue it in court, as their daughter’s name will no doubt be ripped to shreds both in court and online.

    • Philip, if you have any facts based on first-hand knowledge, please share them with me, or better yet, the police. I do like to hear the truth and I’m a big fan of facts.

      Please read the line you object to more carefully. I didn’t say four boys were at the party, I wrote “the four teenage boys alleged to have raped her when she was extremely intoxicated.” Have you considered that it is possible that the party ended and one or two others arrived at the house after the party was over? Also, when there is the term “alleged” in a sentence, it’s implied that one person is saying it, and the writer, by using the term “alleged” is not presenting it as fact. It is a claim yet to be proven in court.

      I’ve read Christie Blatchford’s article — and her work — and certainly don’t consider that authoritative.

      If you are trying to draw a comparison between what I did and what the accused did, I think that’s a stretch. I’ve identified the victim of a crime — with the parents permission — and violated a ban that the Crown Attorney opposed.

    • Carrie says:

      How dare you? “it may not reflect well on the poor girl” That’s a completely disgusting comment.

  14. Bob says:

    This is a terrible thing for the young lady and her family, and some one should pay, but I have my doubts as this is Nova Scotia, and Dartmouth

  15. dangerousmezzo says:

    Thank you for violating the ban and mentioning Rehtaeh’s name. It’s the right thing to do.

  16. chrissy1313 says:

    Thank you Ryan! Well said! Rehtaeh Parsons is her name!

  17. Brenda says:

    Wow, impressive, not glory seeking, no injection of drama, just stated truths and a willingness to allow this family the rights they have been denied but deserve. We need more journalists like you Ryan, a man with the wisdom to see past legal and look to what is right! Don’t ever lose your heart for the human side of a story. It will make you great.

  18. leafing says:

    Thank you for writing this and saying her name in print.

  19. LafG says:

    Thank you for caring about the dignity of this girl and women in general to post such a thoughtful report and for using her name.

  20. Mike Jackson says:

    Thank you for publishing her name. The use of a publication ban in this situation is only protecting the authorities, not the child.

  21. Cynthia says:

    Rehtaeh Parsons was her name, and neither she nor her family deserve to be silenced.

  22. Starr says:

    Reblogged this on Starr and commented:
    Heartbreaking and preventable. Powerful story. Thx

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