Who’s the victim? Families of dead Newfoundlanders question role in court system

When victims can’t appear in court, families say photos keep their presence known

By Ariana Kelland, CBC News Posted: Sep 06, 2016 6:00 AM NT

Would you do it? Take the photo of your loved one and put it away to protect the rights of the person accused of killing them?

For families of victims of crime, holding on to a photo or memento of their loved one provides comfort and allows them to be represented in the court proceedings.

But recent cases in Newfoundland and Labrador courtrooms have seen grieving family members forced from the courtroom, and told to remove any items showing the victim in the case.

Hannah Thorne’s family was asked to remove framed photos of the teen during a court appearance in Harbour Grace last week. Alyssa Davis’s family was told to leave the court because they wore shirts with the girl’s photo on it.

‘Keep her present’

“When Triffie was gone we had nothing else left,” said Sarina Wadman, whose older sister Triffie was shot by her ex-boyfriend and left bleeding to death on a St. John’s street in 2011.

“As her sister, I felt it important to keep her present.”

Wadman and her family brought laminated photos of the slain mother of one and buttons bearing her smiling face during each of Trevor Pardy’s court appearances.

“You will grasp those things like you’ve never grasped them before.”

It was never an issue — even when the case went before a jury.

“The victims and the victims’ families need to be more important,” Wadman said, adding for years she felt silenced by the court system in fear of jeopardizing the case against her sister’s killer.

So, what’s the harm in families holding photos in court?

If you ask a defence lawyer, they’ll tell you very bluntly: it could infringe on the rights of the accused and prejudice the case.

Rod Churchill, whose son Matthew was struck and killed at the age of 15, questions the validity of that concern, given that a judge’s role is to be impartial.

“A judge is on the bench for a reason. He’s proven himself to be an impartial person when it comes to the whole legal process, and I can’t see how a picture will influence his decision,” Churchill said.

“Now, I could understand it more if it was a jury. I can see it having possible influence.”

Like the Davis and Thorne families, Churchill was told to leave the photo of his son at home.

‘I’m disappointed’

Asked if the rights of victim’s families and the accused appear balanced, Terri-Lee Coates is quick to say no.

Her brother, Nick Coates, was killed in an impaired driving collision on Kenmount Road in August 2014.

“I don’t think it was fair that the man that killed my brother was not in court. He didn’t have to come see the pain that was on our faces,” Coates said.

“I’ve watched the video of my brother being killed hundreds of times. And he got to sit home with his family.”

Like the Wadmans, the Coates family were allowed to clutch photos of the 27-year-old during Ronald Thistle’s court proceedings. Thistle eventually pleaded guilty and served nine months in jail.

Those photos gave comfort and control — albeit small — during a time of turmoil, Coates said.

She was angry when she heard Alyssa Davis’s family were removed from provincial court because they were wearing T-shirts in support of the deceased teen.

“I don’t think [Sherree Davis] should be told to leave, or take her shirt off or turn it inside out,” Coates said. “Let the mother grieve.”

Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, said she’s disappointed that judges still ask families to keep tokens of their loved ones out of the courtroom.

“It shows that accused persons rights do trump those of victims,” Illingworth said, adding the accused has constitutionally-based rights and those of victims are only legislatively-based.

“It is unfair and insensitive for victims and their families who are present to represent their loved ones who’ve been taken.”

The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime offers support, research and education to survivors and stakeholders.

What's New

My name is Donna McCully.

It was always our wish to live in Jamaica in our dream home. So, in August 2012, my husband Sedrick Levine and I left Canada to move into our new home. We were thrilled to finally be starting the next chapter in our lives, in Sedrick’s beloved homeland. He bought a little bus and planned to operate tours for visitors to the island. I was helping him run this business venture, as part of our semi- retirement in Jamaica.

My life as I knew it was suddenly shattered when two masked men broke into our home on Sunday, November 17, 2013. Sedrick struggled with the men, allowing me to flee upstairs to call the police. His actions saved my life that day, and that of my father and his housekeeper, who were visiting us at the time. One of the masked intruders chased me upstairs and kicked in the bathroom door, but he stopped when he heard a gunshot from downstairs.

My husband Sedrick was killed that day and the men fled our home with a laptop. The Jamaican police have not yet found these men or charged them with killing my beloved husband. Their motive remains unknown.

This crime has completely changed my life. I suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder now and have depression as a result. I came back to Canada, but I feel very isolated since this happened. These emotional scars may never heal.

I managed to find the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime by searching online one day. I didn’t know where to turn for help when I came home to Canada. The CRCVC has provided me with a lot of emotional support, which has been tremendously helpful. They’ve also written numerous letters to Jamaican officials seeking justice for Sedrick, as well as intervening with Canadian officials on my behalf. The office also helped connect me to a trauma therapist for counselling sessions too.

In order to try and make sense of what happened to Sedrick, it is my hope that others could support the work of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. There are so many other victims/survivors out there who also need their assistance.