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Mitchell apologizes. Mearow and Jocko don't

"I have nothing to say," said Eric Mearow, who sat erect and icily stone-faced, manacled in the jury box for most of the day. His refusal to apologize elicited loud expressions of shocked outrage across the courtroom.
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20160728 Crown Attourney Kelly Weeks Wesley Hallem Trian KA
Crown attorney Kelly Weeks speaks to media immediately after sentencing of Ronald Mitchell, Eric Mearow and Dylan Jocko, who each pleaded guilty to manslaughter and indignity to a dead body in the 2011 death of Wesley Hallam. Photo by Kenneth Armstrong/SooToday.

Ronald Mitchell, Eric Mearow and Dylan Jocko all had good deals in their back pockets this afternoon as their moment of sentencing approached.

Should they jeopardize their plea bargains by apologizing to the people whose lives they had forever, horribly, barbarically changed?

The trio's lawyers had convinced Crown Attorney Kelly Weeks to ask that their first-degree murder charges be reduced to manslaughter.

Superior Court Justice Ian McMillan had agreed.

Victim impact statements had been given.

A joint submission from the Crown and defense lawyers was about to recommend that each of Wesley Hallam's killers be sentenced to less than two years in jail, on top of time already spent in detention awaiting trial.

But Section 726 of the Criminal Code requires that "before determining the sentence to be imposed, the court shall ask whether the offender, if present, has anything to say."

It's a dicey moment.

Lawyers get very apprehensive when clients issue off-the-cuff proclamations moments before they're sentenced.

"'No, thank you, Your Honour' is undeniably the best answer for a solid percentage of accused persons," wrote Craig Penney, a Toronto criminal lawyer, in a recent blog about in-court apologies.

But "giving a sentencing statement provides an opportunity for the accused to connect directly with the judge and, sometimes, the victim. At times, it can be cathartic, and bring a measure of healing," Penney wrote.

This afternoon, Ronald Mitchell, who caused the death of Wesley Hallam by plunging a four-inch blade into his neck during a knife fight, did apologize.

"I'm sincerely sorry," Mitchell said. "I'm not the man I was."

According to submissions made in court today, Mitchell was born in Sault Ste. Marie and raised in a home destroyed by alcohol, drugs and violence.

His formal  education ended at Grade 7.

He sought refuge in substance abuse: alcohol, crack cocaine and heroin were his drugs of choice.

Twenty-six at the time of Wesley Hallam's death, Mitchell was trying to break his dependencies.

If Mitchell's apology today brought any measure of healing to Wesley Hallam's family and friends, the remarks of Eric Mearow and Dylan Jocko had the opposite effect.

"I have nothing to say," said Mearow, who sat erect and icily stone-faced, manacled in the jury box for most of the day.

Mearow, an Ojibway from Batchewana First Nation, was 25 at the time of the Hallam slaying, court was told.

His formal education also ended in Grade 7.

Mearow never knew his father, was raised in a succession of family arrangements and foster homes, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and overindulged in drugs and alcohol.

He was described in court today as "a drug dealer who did drugs."

Mearow's refusal to apologize today elicited loud expressions of shock across the courtroom.

The same thing happened when Jocko used his speak-to-sentence opportunity to simply state: "My lawyer spoke for me - everything I had to say."

Twenty-six years old at the time Hallam died, Jocko had family roots in Batchewana First Nation and Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation near Renfrew.

Believed to have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and attention deficit disorder, his formal education ended at Grade 9, court submissions indicated.

Jocko started drinking and doing drugs at age 8 and by 11 was actively involved in the drug trade.

He was addicted to crack.

Like each of the three men charged in the slaying of Wesley Hallam - and indeed like Hallam himself - Jocko was part of Sault Ste. Marie's drug and criminal subcultures. 

Today, Judge Ian McMillan accepted Mitchell, Mearow and Jocko's pleas of guilty to causing indignity to a human body and the reduced charge of manslaughter.

He sentenced the trio, subject to written reasons to be provided at a future date.

Mitchell got 22 months on top of the time he's already served.

Mearow and Jocko each got two years less a day, after deductions were made for their aboriginal backgrounds and time spent pre-trial in systemic segregation.

All three men have been in custody since they were arrested more than five years ago.

Judge McMillan's sentences were greeted in and outside the courtroom today with loud, expletive-filled tirades.

"A human being just lost their life and they're getting away with murder," shouted one woman.

"We're gonna go get drunk and go kill people. That's justice in Sault Ste. Marie," said another.

There was a large Sault Ste. Marie Police Service presence at today's court proceedings and a protest outside the courthouse.

"Meanwhile in Canada: an hours-long, peaceful demonstration, with police on site not to subdue protestors, but to stand beside them," one of the protestors, Amanda Zuke, posted later on Facebook. 

"Our trust in the 'justice' system may have been stabbed, decapitated, and dismembered today, but our trust in the local constabulary is undiminished, and in some cases, increased," Zuke said.