February 20, 2012
Five years ago today, Talia Meguinis lost her life.
On February 17 of that year, Talia, a 27-year-old mother of three young boys from the Tsuu T’ina Nation, came to Red Deer to visit her aunt. By the end of the weekend, Talia would be dead, killed at the hands of her aunt’s neighbour.
After a painfully long judicial process, the man responsible, Nathan Desharnais has finally been punished. He was sentenced last week to life in prison with no chance of parole for 13 years after pleading guilty to second degree murder in the middle of his trial.
It took almost five years for Talia’s family to see justice. “At least she got some justice and she wasn't just another statistic,” said her cousin Nellie Big Crow. However, the sentence brought little comfort to Big Crow and other members of Talia’s family. They thought they would feel closure but were instead left feeling that Desharnais’ parole ineligibility period was not long enough.
"We are thankful for what was given to him, but still it's going to take a while for us to heal," said Big Crow.
Also healing are Talia’s sons, now aged 7, 10, and 12. They are all being cared for by family members and Big Crow said the boys are doing the best they can.
Since Desharnais’ arrest in September of 2012, I attended almost every one of his court appearances, as did members of Talia’s family, witnessing first-hand how frustrating the judicial process can be in Red Deer.
This case took so long to get to trial, Desharnais’ lawyer even argued that the charges should be stayed. Everyone accused of a crime has a right to be tried in a reasonable amount of time under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Due to various delays, it took nearly four and a half years for Desharnais to get to trial. Justice E.J. Simpson ultimately ruled the delays were not unreasonable and ordered the case to proceed. If Simpson had ruled the other way, proceedings would have ceased and Talia’s case would have been left in limbo.
Therein lies the problem with the backlog in cases at Red Deer court. Local Queen's Bench Court Coordinator Chrystle Hurley testified during Desharnais’ trial and gave some perspective on how far down the road local cases are scheduled. Trials are currently being booked for mid-2018 and Hurley says Red Deer is only guaranteed two Queen’s Bench Judges per week.
Simpson even stated after his ruling that if the institutional delay in Red Deer for booking lengthy criminal trials continues in the 18-20 month range, serious matters may end up being stayed.
City of Red Deer officials have been lobbying for a new courthouse for many years. Mayor Tara Veer has had meetings with provincial officials, though there is still no word on when or if the city will receive funding for a new courthouse.
This past Fall, the Federal Government announced it would fill five vacancies at the superior court level in Alberta. Provincial Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said at the time the announcement was welcome news, but that there is still a judge shortage in Alberta and that the government would work with prosecutors and police to ensure serious cases are heard faster.
Mayor Veer also released a statement on the appointment of the new judges, saying “It is one of many steps needed to alleviate the strain and respond to the pressures on our local and regional judicial systems, which includes, but is not limited to a lack of courtroom space in Red Deer, and the ever increasing population numbers that our courthouse is required to serve.”
“The City of Red Deer continues to advocate for expanded courthouse infrastructure for Red Deer and region,” continued Veer.
A new courthouse would be a great first step, but it would be just that, a first step. Red Deer would also need more than just the two guaranteed Queen’s Bench Judges per week. There would also be a need for more court clerks to staff additional courtrooms. Not to mention more Crown Prosecutors, who in Red Deer are already stretched to the limit from what I can tell just from my personal observations.
I can only imagine how Talia’s family would have felt if Desharnais’ case had been stayed due to the court delays. Thankfully that didn’t happen in this case, but I fear it’s only a matter of time before it does.
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