Friday, August 7, 2009

Are Victims' Impact Statements Overused?

This week in Calgary a tragic drunk-driving incident in which a cement truck crushed a car in an incident which occurred in December 2007. The sentencing of Daniel Tschetter, who was convicted of five counts of manslaughter in the incident and one count of obstructing justice, will take place in October but the victims' impact sentences that were delivered to the court on Wednesday leave me with unsettling questions about this part of the justice process.

In this situation, where five lives were lost to the recklessness of a drunk driver, the consequences of the crime and its appalling detail ought to speak for themselves. During his March 2009 trial, Tschetter attempted to reframe his behaviour the best way he could. Alternately he also claimed that he was a changed man who had learned from the tragedy. I will not parse the legal arguments that were laid out to influence the judge's decision throughout the trial. In the case of a drunk-driving trial, the driver's fingerprint are on the smoking gun that is his vehicle and whether he was drunk or not, should not be overlooked when assessing guilt in this situation. Five people were killed sitting at an intersection. A cement truck plowed right through them, dragging the car 275 metres. That truck was going 105 in an 80 km/h zone. Daniel Tschetter was determined to be the man whose hands were on the steering wheel and foot on the gas pedal instead of the gas.

These details ought to be enough for an experienced qualified judge to determine an appropriate sentence for the crime. Sadly enough, there are enough drunk-driving cases to provide a wealth of precedent for the courts to rely on as an indication of what an appropriate sentence ought to be. The defendant's argument that he drank after the crash, when there was evidence to the contrary ought to indicate to the judge the character of a man who committed the crime and was looking for away to avoid the justice that needed to be delivered. The victims' impact statements seem superfluous under these circumstances and seem to be an indication that the justice system had lost credibility over the years not only from being too lenient, let's not rush to that knee-jerk response, but also the times when they have been too harsh when delivering sentences.

I grow uncomfortable with the influence that the victims' impact statement has. I am not against the victims being considered in this situation. I grow uncomfortable with the fact that the victims' impact statements have become such a requirement of the justice process. Perhaps I should be content to say that the justice system is fallible for every human element that goes into it and that I should be glad that the system has evolved to include the impact statement. I am willing to concede that.

However, the media attention that surrounds the victims' statement and the possibility that a judge or a court might be swayed by the ability or inability of a victim to articulate their loss or suffering. These are things that could be easily influenced by someone's level of education, income level and perhaps something as hard to interpret as one's composure. There's every chance that the victims' impact influences the judge's decision but just as much of a chance that it turns into a side show. In this case, where the evidence is so strong, one can only hope that the victims' survivors found their contributions in court this week to be cathartic and fleeting. I do not see enough of a grey area in this case where their contribution to sentencing was vital to the outcome. The details are too obvious for the judge to get wrong.