In a recent article in the Advocate entitled Justice System Failed Brian Knight, and us, columnist Bill Greenwood commented on the recent case in which Brian Knight was sentenced to 90 days in jail to be served on weekends as a result of his having fired a shotgun in the direction of a thief who had attempted to steal a quad on his property. The fleeing thief fell after the first shot, but Mr. Knight fired a second time.
Greenwood took issue with the sentence handed down by the judge in the case, as in Greenwood’s view Brian Knight was the victim, not the criminal. He took the judge to task, writing that the judge should have acquitted Knight, that the judge owed the public an explanation as to why this “victim” ended up being sentenced to jail, and that the judge showed a prejudice against lawful gun ownership.
Greenwood was also critical of the RCMP and the Crown prosecutor, but because they can respond to defend themselves whereas the judge cannot, we will deal only with Greenwood’s comments regarding the judge.
Greenwood’s three main contentions are inaccurate, unfair to the judge and are based on a misconception of the judge’s role in our justice system.
The contention that the judge could have and should have acquitted Knight is inaccurate. It must be understood that Knight came before the judge for sentencing having pled guilty to the serious criminal offence of criminal negligence causing bodily harm involving the use of a firearm. It was not an option for the judge to acquit.
Perhaps Greenwood means the judge should have granted a conditional discharge or suspended sentence. On the facts of this case, the judge chose not to do so and in open court provided a lengthy explanation, which included reliance on previously decided similar cases.
Secondly, Greenwood’s contention that the judge owes the public some explanation of her decision is both unfair to the judge and is based on a misconception of the proper role of judges in our justice system.
Firstly, the judge did in fact provide an explanation of her decision in the public forum of the courtroom in which Knight made his guilty plea and that explanation was recorded and transcribed. Greenwood expects something more though, it seems; it would seem that what he is calling for is for the judge to write a letter to the editor or to go on the radio or television to explain why she did what she did.
That would be completely inappropriate. We expect our judges to be independent and impartial arbiters of the cases presented to them in our courtrooms. The spectre of judges writing letters to the editor or calling in to talk radio to defend their decisions would completely undermine their role as independent and impartial arbiters.
Greenwood’s call for the judge to provide this type of public explanation of her decision is unfair to her as it would be contrary to the rules of the Canadian Judicial Council by which she is bound. It is important to recognize that this is the case so that people do not think that a judge’s failure to respond to a demand such as Greenwood’s means that there is no explanation for her decisions — judges cannot respond to such a demand.
Finally, Greenwood accuses the judge of having “made a serious mistake that shows a prejudice that throws a cloud over the veracity of her decision in this matter.” What is this serious mistake? Well, the judge apparently used the word “vigilantism” in a way that Greenwood disapproved of and from this Greenwood concludes that the judge “has been far too immersed in a cultural milieu that is far more troubled by lawful gun ownership than random lawlessness.”
This is a very serious charge: accusing a judge of deciding cases not based on the evidence and law but rather on some personal preference which has nothing to do with the case. Such a charge strikes at the heart of our justice system and should not be made lightly.
Greenwood chooses to make this serious charge against a judge who cannot respond to defend herself because of her role based on nothing more than his disagreement with her about the use of a word. That is wrong and is not only an unfair and unwarranted attempt to cast aspersions on the judge, but is also an unfair and unwarranted attempt to cast a negative light on the justice system.
Debate and criticism about our justice system and cases such as Knight’s are to be encouraged as such debate and criticism are the cornerstone of our democracy and are the means through which our justice system will continue to evolve and improve over time. To be productive, though, the debate and criticism cannot be based on inaccuracies and unfair and unfounded personal attacks on judges.
Let’s continue to debate these issues but let’s also ensure that in doing so we have our facts straight and we are not accusing people unfairly — particularly in cases where they, because of their roles, are not able to respond to defend themselves.
Brent Handel, President
Chris Rickards, Treasurer
Central Alberta Bar Association