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Is natural impulse to save a life a crime?


Squirrels can be the worst. They play a deadly game of chicken with drivers, seemingly timing a desperate dash across the street just as you are about to pass them.

I’ve even hit a squirrel while riding a bike.

It’s a natural reflex to stomp on the brakes or swerve wildly when you come upon wildlife trying to cross a roadway. So there needs to be at least some sympathy for Emma Czornobaj, who took her concerns for some roadside ducklings a step or two too far. She stopped her car in the left lane of a highway near Candiac, Que., in an effort to capture the baby ducks that appeared to be orphaned.

That was four years ago. Last week, her act of concern became national news when a jury unanimously convicted her of two counts of criminal negligence causing death.

She now faces a potential lengthy jail sentence for that act, because Andre Roy, 50, and his 16 year-old daughter Jessie were killed when the motorcycle Andre was driving hit the rear of Czornobaj’s Honda Civic at high speed.

Andre’s wife Pauline Volikakis was riding a motorcycle of her own and watched in horror as her husband and daughter were thrown like rag dolls in the crash.

A horror. A tragedy. A terrible, preventable, loss of life.

But criminal negligence? I have a little trouble with that.

For one thing, Roy was driving well above the speed limit at the time. A police investigation suggested Roy was running at anywhere between 113 km/h and 129 km/h when he applied the brakes to his bike.

Stopping in the left lane of a highway is not a very smart thing to do. Not turning on warning flashers brings this into dumb territory. Trying to herd wild ducklings into one’s car while your vehicle is parked on a highway takes this one level farther.

But criminally negligent? I’m not so sure.

Volikakis was driving slower than her husband and was able to avoid the crash.

That must say something to the finding of responsibility for the crash.

The urge to do something potentially dangerous in your car is almost instinctive when you come upon wildlife.

I grew up on a farm and have seen death for a pretty wide variety of animals. Cats, dogs, cattle, chickens, turkeys, hogs — all have met their demise on our farm at one time or another. I’ve shot a lot of gophers in the pasture, and plinked dozens of sparrows around the chicken run. An elderly black lab on our farm was a champion mouser, and we kids spent a lot of time in the summer turning over fallen logs to expose nests for him.

But when a squirrel or a family of ducks crosses the road in front of me, I make emergency avoidance moves, without thinking. The appearance of a deer or moose anywhere near the road is cause for a sudden deceleration.

If another vehicle — obviously speeding — were right behind me at those moments, could these natural reactions be considered criminally negligent?

These are not the exact facts of the case for Emma Czornobaj. But reading a news story like this one brings to mind: “there but for the grace of God. ...”

Czornobaj has her pre-sentence report set for Aug. 16. Her lawyer is considering an appeal. For Czornobaj and Volikakis, this sad event has dragged on for four years.

We have to trust the wisdom of the juries we pick for trials. We need to believe that judges weigh a lot of factors in sentencing.

Not every duckling that hatches in spring survives to make the fall migration. Trying to alter that is vanity.

But not every terrible, avoidable death on the highway needs to have someone to blame for it. Or maybe it does.

All told, this is just a terribly sad event.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

 
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