Defending the indefensible
Our nation’s system of justice is stronger because of defence lawyers like Evan Roitenberg.
Yes, that’s bound to be an unpopular viewpoint, especially today.
But that’s the truth, as uncomfortable or inconvenient as it may seem.
Because it’s also equally true (however unheralded or swept under the rug) that each person in Canada — no matter how justifiably vilified, loathed or downright nasty their conduct — has the right to be represented and defended to the lengths the law will allow.
Although I personally have never been, nor plan to be, in such a position, I’m glad for this.
As we all should be.
Roitenberg (if you don’t know by now) is the defence lawyer for disgraced hockey coach Graham James.
The facts disclosed by the Crown at James’ sentencing hearing Wednesday regarding his abusive and reprehensible treatment of Theo Fleury and his cousin Todd Holt years ago were difficult to hear.
After years now of observing and writing about all manner of serious and sick crime of all kinds, Wednesday’s hours-long hearing was, in part, a cut above when one considers the depth of the described betrayal.
James’ conduct was and is indefensible on any level.
Cries for him to be locked up for a long time have reverberated loudly.
The Crown has requested he serve six years of prison.
Roitenberg, as all expected, sees things differently.
He spent hours Wednesday explaining to Judge Catherine Carlson why that is; why he feels the law should grant James a conditional sentence to be served in the community of 18 months or less.
Roitenberg, a skilled public speaker with a clear flair for rhetoric, rose to speak after James himself delivered a carefully-prepared apology from the prisoner’s box.
Here’s a taste of his first few minutes of submissions Wednesday, verbatim.
“Your Honour, if it were up to Graham James, that would be it … he would throw himself on the mercy of your Honour — recognizing the depth of his actions, recognizing the effect of his actions and recognizing how wrong he was,” he started.
“But Mr. James was foolish enough to hire me, and I can’t allow him to do that,” he said.
“Because his crimes, regardless of the insight that he recognizes now, have legal repercussions. And it’s not just for him to say, ‘I know I was wrong and I accept what the court will bring.'”
“And in that vein, I’m hoping to persuade you this afternoon, that the Crown’s submission as to what would be the appropriate and just disposition here is anything but appropriate and just. I’m hoping to persuade you that if a court in Alberta some 15 years ago had all the facts, the principles of totality would have kicked in. They would have kicked in to a certain degree as would factors as they pertain to rehabilitation and restoration.”
“The man who stands before you today stands before you rehabilitated as far as anybody could be having done whatever was asked of him for a number of years, to develop the insights that he now has. To have put in place strategies to ensure he doesn’t put himself in a situation where he’s tempted to offend, strategies that take away the temptation to offend, and insights to allow him to channel his energies otherwise.
“Because that’s all been accomplished already,” he said.
“But to do that, I have to tell you some things about Graham James. I want to share with you the man, because with the greatest of respect — having sat here all morning and having been Mr. James’ counsel for some two years now or so, I can tell you it’s like representing young women in Salem, Massachusetts centuries ago who were wrongly accused of being witches.
“Because there’s really nothing in many people’s eyes that I can say today that will change their opinion of Graham James. There’s very little I can do to dispel the myths and the notoriety of the monstrous nature of the beast that has been built up in many people’s eyes. But I can’t do that. I don’t have to do that.
“My task is to enlighten one jurist.”
And there’s the rub, that sharpened point — one, I’m sure, causes countless law-abiding citizens to gnash their teeth in frustration and take to the comment sections on news websites in droves.
The hard truth is it matters not what people think of Graham James, what they may want to see happen come his March 20 day of reckoning; what punishment they feel befits his despicable conduct.
It matters what Carlson thinks. It matters what the law says she must do in this case, which in legal terms is very unusual for a number of reasons.
Despite what some may personally think about Roitenberg’s vigorous defence of a man dubbed “the poster boy for parole reform” or “possibly the most hated man in Canada, certainly the most hated man in hockey” (Roitenberg’s own words as he derided the media glare over the case) — his job, his duty — is to defend James to the best of his abilities.
Because that’s the law. And Roitenberg knows all about that. He’s very good at what he does.
And regardless what one thinks about Graham James and his hideous and evil conduct — he — like you, me and everyone else in this great country — is entitled to present the best defence one can get within the bounds of the law.
Got a problem with the law?
Think sentences for child abuse are too soft? Think it’s wrong, as Greg Gilhooly does, that drug-traffickers can get more jail time than child-molesters?
Call or email your MP and demand change.
That’s your right as well.
*** As a note, I don’t know Roitenberg. I’ve never once had a personal conversation with him.
Any opinion expressed above about his work is based on my experience of it in court over the years, and is just that — my opinion.