Supreme Court of Canada unanimously overturns life without parole for mass murderers

In this 2017 file photo, flowers are seen near the Quebec City mosque, where a shooting has left six dead and eight wounded.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down life in prison without parole for serial killers, retroactive to the time it was enacted in 2011, giving large numbers of convicted killers hope of one day being released.

The ruling, written by Chief Justice Richard Wagner, found that the punishment is cruel and unusual and therefore illegal under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it is “inherently incompatible with human dignity.”

The decision was made in the case of Alexandre Bissonnette, who killed six Muslims at a Quebec City mosque in 2017. He is now eligible for full parole in 25 years.

But the ruling also affects at least 18 others who have been sentenced since 2011 to periods of disqualification from parole in excess of 25 years. Those who received 50 years or more, even if they have exhausted their resources, have a clear right to ask a court to reduce their period of ineligibility to 25 years. The highest sentences so far have had a 75-year waiting period for a parole hearing.

Among this group are Justin Bourque of New Brunswick, who killed three troopers at age 24 and received life in prison without the possibility of parole until age 99; Derek Saretzky of Alberta, who killed a two-year-old boy and two adults when he, too, was 24 years old and received the same sentence as Mr. Bourque; and Douglas Garland, also of Alberta, who killed three people when he was 57 and was sentenced to life in prison without a parole hearing until age 132.

Those who received less than 50 years to wait but more than 25 years for their first parole hearing (as the 2011 law allowed for those who committed multiple second-degree murders) can also go to court to argue that the punishment is cruel and unusual in his case. They would have to show that the sentence would take them to the end of their lives and deny them the opportunity for a parole hearing.

Friday’s ruling also means Alek Minassian, who killed 10 people in a pickup truck rampage on Toronto’s Yonge Street in 2018, will be eligible for parole in 25 years. Sentencing in a lower court had been delayed, pending the Supreme Court ruling in the Bissonnette case.

The federal sentencing law for multiple murderers immediately reverts to what it had been before the changes implemented by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper in 2011. First-degree murder will now bring a mandatory life sentence with the first eligibility for full parole at 25 years, no matter how many people are killed. Second-degree murder, no matter how many victims are involved, also carries a mandatory life sentence, with eligibility for first parole ranging from 10 to 25 years, as set by a judge.

The Harper administration had authorized judges to stack the 25-year waiting periods, one for each murder: up to 150 years for Bissonnette and 250 years for Minassian. They were both in their twenties when they committed the mass murders and acted alone. The parole stacking law has been used in at least 18 cases, with 75 years being the longest wait for a parole hearing. Quebec, four provinces, and the federal government argued that the discretion given to judges allowed them to apply the law in appropriate cases, and that therefore the law should be upheld. Parole is a supervised release, with conditions; parole boards have the authority to deny an inmate’s request for release based on a perceived risk to society.

But the Supreme Court said that neither judicial discretion nor the royal prerogative of clemency allows for a realistic chance of release.

“Parliament cannot pass a sentence that negates the goal of rehabilitation, in advance and irreversibly, for all offenders,” Chief Justice Wagner wrote.

Quebec Superior Court Judge François Huot, who presided over Mr. Bissonnette’s trial, ruled that the law was unconstitutional and gave him 40 years of barring parole. The Quebec Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that the law was unconstitutional and only allowed 25-year increments.

In the United States, 27 states, the federal government and the military maintain the death penalty, which the United States Supreme Court has upheld as constitutional. Nearly every state has life without parole on the books, and roughly 56,000 are serving that sentence. Of these, almost 1,500 were sentenced as minors, before reaching the age of 18.

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