Supreme Court of Canada: Quebec City mosque shooter sentence was unconstitutional

The Supreme Court says it is unconstitutional to sentence people to consecutive periods of parole ineligibility, even for multiple murder. This means the Quebec City mosque shooter is now eligible for parole after 25 years - not 40.

By The Canadian Press

The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that the sentence for the man who went on a deadly shooting spree at a Quebec City mosque in 2017 is unconstitutional.

This means that before being eligible for full parole, Alexandre Bissonnette will have to serve 25 years behind bars for the six murders he committed at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec five years ago,

In its decision Friday, the high court declares unconstitutional a 2011 Criminal Code provision that allowed a judge, in the event of multiple murders, to impose a life sentence and parole ineligibility periods of 25 years to be served consecutively for each murder.

Chief Justice Richard Wagner wrote: “Under this provision, a court has the power to sentence an offender to imprisonment for life without a realistic possibility of parole for 50, 75 or even 150 years. In other words, in the context of multiple first degree murders, all offenders to whom this provision applies are doomed to spend the rest of their lives behind bars, and the sentences of some offenders may even exceed human life expectancy.”

The Supreme Court says the provision violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee against cruel or unusual treatment because it can deny offenders a realistic possibility of being granted parole before they die and the possibility of reintegrating into society — a punishment that is degrading and incompatible with human dignity.

“I want to acknowledge the hurt and anger that today’s decision may rekindle among all the victims of the horrific attack in Quebec City, especially survivors, families and friends, and the Muslim community in Quebec and across the country,” said David Lametti, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.

“The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Criminal Code provision that allows judges to order consecutive periods of parole ineligibility in cases of multiple murders is unconstitutional.

Our position was clear, we supported a sentencing judge’s discretion to impose a longer period of parole ineligibility where appropriate,” continued Minister Lametti.

“However, we will respect the Court’s decision and carefully review its implications and the path forward,” he added. “We will continue to stand with those affected by this terrible crime and support them.”

As a result, the high court invalidated that provision of the criminal code immediately – striking it down retroactively to its enactment in 2011.

Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six charges of first-degree murder in the January 2017 assault that took place just after evening prayers.

In 2019, Bissonnette successfully challenged a 2011 law that allowed a court, in the event of multiple murders, to impose a life sentence and parole ineligibility periods of 25 years to be served consecutively for each murder.

A judge found the provision unconstitutional but did not declare it invalid, ultimately ruling Bissonnette must wait 40 years before applying for parole.

Quebec’s Court of Appeal struck down the sentencing provision on constitutional grounds and said the parole ineligibility periods should be served concurrently, meaning a total waiting period of 25 years in Bissonnette’s case.

In the conclusion of Friday’s ruling, Chief Justice Wagner said, “Eligibility for parole is not a right to parole. Experience has shown that the Board generally proceeds with care and caution before making a decision as important as releasing multiple murderers back into society.”

He also recognized the gravity of Bissonnette’s murder spree: “The respondent committed horrendous crimes that damaged the very fabric of our society. Fueled by hatred, he took the lives of six innocent victims and caused serious, even permanent, physical and psychological injuries to the survivors of the killings. He left not only families devastated but a whole community — the Muslim community in Québec and throughout Canada — in a state of anguish and pain, with many of its members still fearful for their safety today.”

The ruling, however, must not be see as devaluing the life of each innocent victim, Chief Justice Wagner says.

He writes: “Everyone would agree that multiple murders are inherently despicable acts and are the most serious of crimes, with consequences that last forever. This appeal is not about the value of each human life, but rather about the limits on the state’s power to punish offenders, which, in a society founded on the rule of law, must be exercised in a manner consistent with the Constitution.”

 

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