Thursday, May 13, 2010
Pardon bill goes too far
The case of Graham James — the sexual abuser of hockey players who was quietly pardoned for his crimes three years ago — shocked the public when it became public last month. Clearly the system, under which pardons are granted virtually automatically behind closed doors, is in need of a fix.
But the Conservative government, in its zeal to drape itself in the “tough on crime” mantel, has gone too far with the legislation it introduced Tuesday.
Bill C-23 would give the National Parole Board more discretion to deny pardons by taking into account “the nature, gravity and duration of the offence” as well as the circumstances of the crime and the applicant's criminal history. To introduce more transparency to the system, the board would also be required to report regularly on the number and types of pardons granted and denied. These are reasonable proposals designed to ensure that the administration of justice is not brought into disrepute by the granting of pardons in egregious cases.
But the bill would also unnecessarily change the term “pardon,” with its connotation of forgiveness, to the blander “record suspension.” Forgiveness, said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, “is not the business of government.” That seems mean-spirited.
Going further, the bill would impose an absolute ban on pardons for anyone convicted of a sexual offence involving a minor or anyone convicted of more than three indictable offences. That would needlessly tie the hands of the parole board.
Pardons have a place in our society, for persons of good conduct who have not reoffended. By lifting the stain of a criminal record, pardons can also make job searches and travel easier, thereby facilitating rehabilitation of the convicted and their reintegration into society. It ought to be possible to tighten up the process of granting pardons without losing sight of that objective.
TORONTO - Pardoned sex predator Graham James has been tracked down in Mexico — a return to the public eye that has one of his alleged victims once again anxiously pacing the floor.
Images of the disgraced junior hockey coach, slimmer than in past years, in the teeming Mexican city of Guadalajara are already weighing heavily on the man whose fresh allegations brought to light revelations about the pardon James was granted three years ago.
"For a guy who has been in hiding for ten years, and then for the first time is approached by reporters, he is photographed with a smile on his face," the man said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
"We can't begin to understand this calm reaction, because he is not like the rest of us - he's a psychopath."
James's latest accuser has spoken to The Canadian Press on condition he not be identified.
CBC News and the Globe and Mail say they teamed up to find James in Guadalajara, where he's reportedly working for a Montreal-based company and living in a modest gated community.
"I'm impressed that you found me," James, now 58, tells a CBC reporter who confronted him on a city street. He refused a request for an interview, and referred questions to his Winnipeg lawyer.
"Graham is, in his world, always the smartest person in the room," his latest accuser said.
"He is finally found and captured on camera, and yet he reacts not at all, calmly remarking that he is impressed they could find him, not that he has been hiding — the inference being he could disappear if he really wanted to. There is no fear, no emotion, just a cold, detached, condescending tone as if the day were one no different from any other."
The CBC footage, which aired Wednesday on The National, showed James looking thinner and older than he did in 1997, when he pleaded guilty to sexual assault charges stemming from allegations levelled by two of his former teenaged players, including ex-NHLer Sheldon Kennedy.
Another high-profile player, former Calgary Flames star forward Theoren Fleury, came forward earlier this year to allege that he, too, had been abused by James. Those allegations have not resulted in any charges, but are under investigation by police in Winnipeg. There are also no charges connected to the allegations of the unidentified accuser and nothing has been tried in a court.
"Hearing that voice again, so hauntingly soft, so seemingly polite, yet knowing in an instant it can switch to rage _ the memories just rushed back," the anonymous accuser said Wednesday night.
"I'm actually shaking as I say this. He's 3,000 kilometres away and I'm actually afraid tonight, not that I think anything will happen to me, but afraid nonetheless."
But he had a warning for James.
"If he thinks a hat pulled down over his face to try to hide his identity will protect him from what is about to come his way, he's yet again deluding himself," the victim said.
In a statement posted on his website, Fleury could barely contain his contempt.
"I feel a certain sense of relief that the rat has come out of his hole."
In an interview with The Canadian Press, he admitted that he was anxious prior to seeing James on CBC.
''I haven't seen him in 14 years and things change. I've learned that he's not a powerful guy anymore. He made sure his hat was covering his eyes, he was a mess and I don't remember him being like that.''
James, who was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, was quietly pardoned three years ago, but the pardon wasn't made public until it was disclosed last month in a report by The Canadian Press.
The news touched off a firestorm of controversy, culminating in the federal government's promise Tuesday to revamp the system and make it more difficult for repeat, violent offenders to get pardons.
Mexico doesn't have a registry for sex offenders, and because of the Canadian pardon, there is no official means for Mexican authorities to learn of his criminal history, the CBC reported on its website.
Asked if he would return to Canada in the event of additional charges, James said: "I have a lawyer already in Winnipeg, so it's not like I'm running away."
That sentiment was echoed Wednesday by Evan Roitenberg, the lawyer in question.
"The Winnipeg police are conducting an investigation and when they reach a point in time that they wish to speak to my client, I'm sure they will be in contact with me," Roitenberg said.
"He's not on the run from anything. He's just working."
On Tuesday, the federal Conservative government responded to the revelations about the pardon with a pledge to replace them with harder-to-get "record suspensions," and to make it impossible for anyone convicted of sex crimes against children to even apply for one.
Under the new legislation, people convicted of minor crimes would have to wait five years before applying for a record suspension; those guilty of more serious offences will have to wait 10 years.
It would be up to the criminal to demonstrate that a record suspension would contribute to his or her rehabilitation.
''The pardon of convicted sex offender Graham James was deeply offensive to Canadians, to victims and to our government,'' Justice Minister Vic Toews told a news conference.
James's latest accuser said he was gratified with the government's reaction.
"I was pleasantly surprised by both the content of the changes and the speed with which they have been brought forward," he said.
"The PMO loudly and clearly got the message, and I am thankful for that. They lived up to everything they said when this first came to light."
Fleury, too, expressed the hope that the case's return to the limelight would ultimately prove beneficial.
"I've spent a year on the road talking to people, hearing their stories, and if that has helped anyone then that's the good news coming out of all this," he said on his website.