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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 seen an intelligent person write.
  5. 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.

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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.

Don’t wait for legal reform — push for it

roderick-macdonald

Roderick Macdonald was a contrarian and innovator who shaped legal reform in Canada.

Most Canadians probably think legal reform is something best left to lawyers and politicians. Reflect on that for a few minutes and ask yourself if you want to leave it entirely up to them. Consider to whom they might be beholden and don’t leave it up to others to make the kind of country you want.

In the Internet age, there is greater opportunity to participate in democracy and participate in discussions. The Internet is  to us as the agora was to ancient Greece. It is an amazing medium, but some people are using it to great harm and our justice system doesn’t seem to be able to keep pace.

As Hilary Beaumont wrote in her excellent article in The Coast there are people using the Internet to commit crimes that police say are beyond the current scope of the law. In some cases that’s true, but in many cases police and prosecutors just need the mental dexterity to apply existing laws to new crimes that fit under their umbrella.

I’m a firm believer in democracy, despite its flaws, but there is a lack of accountability and transparency in our government and bureaucracy. There is also an overwhelming urge to dither instead acting clearly and decisively to do the right thing. You should never be afraid to do the right thing under the circumstances. If you’re afraid of future consequences, then you adjust your actions to mitigate or eliminate those.

After writing about the publication ban in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, someone contacted me and offered to help. It was great to hear a total stranger offer me words of encouragement and legal support if I needed it. He also shared with me some new inspiration: former McGill University law professor Roderick Macdonald.

In May, Macdonald gave what was perhaps his last interview at a symposium in Montreal, and a few of his comments are worthy of a valedictory address for a man who had a profound impact on legal reform in our country.

“Many, many people believe that the law is a one-way projection of authority from lawmakers or law-givers to citizens, who are merely passive respondents to what the commands of the people in authority are. The best way to achieve a harmonious and peaceful society is to recognize that people have within themselves the capacity to do what is appropriate under the circumstances, and that the law should be designed to facilitate their agency.”

Now that a growing number of people have broken the publication ban in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, Glen Canning has asked the Attorney General and the Public Prosecution Service of Nova Scotia to issue a pronouncement saying they will not prosecute. We wait, but hopefully they will make a decision before the next court appearance. Meanwhile, media outside Canada, including one of the world’s most respected newspapers — The Guardian — are covering it and using Rehtaeh’s name in their coverage.

Hopefully, they’re convinced the ban has been broken. If they’re not convinced, then keep doing your part to break it. It’s about nothing more than making sure public officials are held accountable for their actions — or inaction — and for this to be done with public scrutiny.

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.

Why?

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.”