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.

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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.”

Rehtaeh Parsons and her family deserve the truth

I have a daughter and I cannot imagine the pain and suffering that Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents are going through right now.

I also have four teenage sons and I cannot imagine any of them participating in what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons and, if they were, I would be ashamed and turn them into police.

Four boys are alleged to have raped her in November 2011. One of them took pictures that night and shared it on Facebook. The RCMP investigated the incident and decided not to lay charges. The four boys – who were not interviewed by the Mounties until several months after the incident – were not charged with sexual assault because the police said it was a he said, she said case.

Rehtaeh Parsons was 15 at the time, so that means that the person who took her picture and distributed it online should have been charged with making and distributing child pornography. That didn’t happen either.

One of the basic tenets of Canada’s legal system is that all people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. This, I agree with. In cases of sexual assault, the issue of consent is often the point that is argued in court and determines whether there is a conviction or an acquittal. Even if you assume that the four boys had consent, that in no way excuses what happened with the photograph.

It is illegal to create and distribute child pornography in Canada. That is what happened here and the only thing that can be disputed is who took the picture and who pressed the send button. What the police should have done was found out who owned the phone that sent the picture and on whose Facebook account the picture was posted. Given modern technology, these two things should be easy enough to do. Once charges are laid, the person – or people – responsible should have an overwhelming urge to tell police what they know and assist them in piecing together the facts.

Consent, if it existed, also doesn’t excuse the unjustified scorn Rehtaeh Parsons faced at Cole Harbour District High School and online.

That suffering ended this past weekend when, after she hanged herself in the bathroom at home, she went into a coma and was taken off life support.

Given that tragic result, even if one of my sons was questioned and not charged,  I would be taking them to the police station and making sure that they told the truth – the whole truth – about what they did and what they saw.

Unfortunately, the “My-Johnny-Can-Do-No-Wrong” Syndrome is all too prevalent and many parents fail to hold their kids accountable.

I worry about the world my daughter is growing up in. I worry that she is growing up in a province that has failed to properly investigate this incident, but I am glad that our provincial Justice Minister, Ross Landry, is looking in to this.

In the poignant words of Peter Gabriel in his song about Stephen Biko, the eyes of the world are watching now. Let’s do the right thing, Nova Scotia. Let’s find the truth and let’s have justice.