Life sentence for drunk driver a first in Canada: Crown

It’s not the sentence they were looking for, but Crown prosecutors say a legal precedent was still set Wednesday.

Sara Khudaverian holds a photo of her late daughter

SALABERRY-DE-VALLEYFIELD, Que. — It’s not the sentence they were looking for, but Crown prosecutors say a legal precedent was still set Wednesday.

A Canadian court has, for the first time ever, sentenced a drunk driver to life in prison, said Crown lawyer Joey Davis.

Roger Walsh, 57, was handed the ruling in a courtroom west of Montreal. He pleaded guilty to mowing down a wheelchair-bound woman last year after a night of binge drinking.

It was his 19th drunk-driving conviction.

Quebec court judge Michel Mercier declared the man incorrigible and said he would be likely to reoffend.

But he did not hand prosecutors the legal prize they were hoping for: dangerous offender status for Walsh. The Crown had been seeking to make Walsh the first Canadian subjected to that designation for drunk driving.

The judge concluded that the designation — which has been reserved for the worst criminals, like murderers and serial rapists — did not apply in this case.

In practical terms, however, Wednesday’s sentence could wind up being just as harsh.

Walsh would have had a chance, either way, to seek parole after seven years; the difference with dangerous offenders is that once they’re freed they’re monitored more strictly and, if they reoffend, they can then be locked up indefinitely.

Prosecutors have now tried on three occasions — including in Ontario and Alberta — but no Canadian judge has ever granted a dangerous offender tag for an impaired driving conviction.

The Crown had been hopeful that they could make history in this case, thanks to recent changes changes in federal law that might have made it easier to get the label applied.

Walsh pleaded guilty last December running down Anee Khudaverdian in October 2008 after a night of heavy drinking. The wheelchair-bound mother was out with her dog, on her 47th birthday.

The Crown was hopeful it might get the dangerous-offender tag to stick, thanks to a 2008 Criminal Code amendment.

With an absence of jurisprudence for applying the status in cases like this, the judge says he examined transcripts from the debate in Parliament last year when the Criminal Code was amended.

“It’s clear that the intent of the legislator was not to include the infraction committed by the accused under the definition of dangerous offender,” Mercier wrote, saying it wasn’t up to him to change the law.

The 2008 change allows prosecutors to seek the dangerous offender status with a lengthy prison term — 20 years, followed by 10 years of close surveillance — as opposed to an indeterminate prison sentence.

It was introduced in the Tories’ Tackling Violent Crime Act.

Under the old rules, the dangerous-offender designation automatically meant an indefinite prison stay and was reserved for the worst violent criminals. Now, someone with the designation can get a fixed prison sentence — but if they breach conditions once they’re freed, they could be thrown back in jail indefinitely.

Walsh’s lawyer, Jacques Vinet, had proposed a 10-year sentence.

Anee Khudaverdian was propelled into a ditch after being struck by the minivan. Walsh kept driving and was arrested less than 10 kilometres away after driving into a ditch himself.

The court had heard that Walsh had more than double the legal blood-alcohol limit of .08 in his system. Walsh’s 18 previous impaired driving convictions and 114 previous convictions in total for assault, uttering threats, breaking and entering and theft were entered into evidence.

The victim’s sister was pleased with the verdict.

“We still made history today, we made history for my sister,” said Clara Khudaverdian.

“We didn’t get dangerous offender and, in this case, I think it was difficult for the judge to render the decision because the law is unclear.”

She said she wished politicians would clarify their intentions about when the dangerous-offender label should apply.

In addition to the life sentence, Walsh was also sentenced to two years for the additional charges he faced — hit and run causing death and probation violations.

He won’t be allowed behind the wheel of a car ever again.

Walsh’s lawyer Jacques Vinet said it was a surprising sentence because, in terms of prison years, the judge handed down more than what either the defence or Crown had asked for.

Vinet said he wasn’t surprised the attempt at dangerous-offender status failed. He said he would discuss with his client whether to appeal the sentence.

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