Meeting planned over controversial plea deal
The police chief of a northern Ontario city said he’s going to meet with the provincial Attorney General’s office to discuss a controversial plea deal made in secret in a gruesome homicide, decapitation and dismemberment case.
Sault Ste. Marie Police Chief Robert Keetch said Crown attorneys agreed to the deal without input from the investigators in charge of the first-degree murder case against Ronald Mitchell, Dylan Jocko and Eric Mearow in the death of 29-year-old Wesley Hallam at a drug-fuelled house party in 2011.
Last week all three pleaded guilty to manslaughter and indignity to a human body and will walk free in two years or less. The plea was denounced by dozens of protesters who gathered outside the courthouse at the time, as well as by Hallam’s family and Keetch, who slammed prosecutors and the ministry.
Both sides will meet sometime in the next few weeks, the police chief said.
While it’s too late to change the outcome of the case, Keetch said the ministry’s office is keen to meet to discuss the issue.
“We’ll live with the decision, but I want to see the process change for the future so the circumstances that led up to the resolution to this doesn’t happen again,” Keetch said. “I’m looking to effect policy and/or procedural change.”
The police chief said he wants to know why his lead investigators were shut out of the negotiations and why prosecutors denied a deal was in the works.
Keetch told The Canadian Press his force only found out about the plea deal after officers who were escorting the men to and from their court appearances overheard them discussing it.
“We were hearing these rumours and we were asking the Crown if there was a resolution in the works and we were told there was no deal,” Keetch said.
After repeated questioning, Keetch said, the Crown’s regional office finally admitted two weeks ago the men would plead to lesser charges. The first-degree murder trial was slated to begin in October following a lengthy preliminary hearing.
Keetch said he was told the plea deal was first suggested after prosecutors from outside the area were asked to weigh in on the case.
Now he wants the Attorney General to review that process.
The chief also took issue with the agreed statement of facts that was read in court last week.
“There is significant differences in the sense of the evidence we gathered and what was presented in court,” he said, but would not comment further.
Keetch called Hallam’s death “one of the most important and horrific” cases in recent memory.
More than 200 officers from the Sault Ste. Marie force and the Ontario Provincial Police worked the case, he said.
It took three months and $1 million just to find and recover Hallam’s head, which was wrapped in a garbage bag, tossed in a dumpster and eventually brought to a landfill in Michigan, he said.
“It was a huge profile and I really felt it was in the best interest that it go to trial and ultimately let a jury pass verdict in this particular matter,” Keetch said.
A spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General would not comment on whether a meeting was scheduled but said plea deals are about “achieving just and appropriate resolutions in criminal matters.”
“In each case, the Crown considers the individual facts and circumstances, including the strength of the available evidence, potential defences, and the likely outcome of a criminal prosecution,” Brendan Crawley said in an email.
“In recommending a plea resolution to the Court, the Crown’s goal is to protect the public while ensuring the accused is held accountable. The decision to accept or reject the plea ultimately rests with the judge, who must decide if the plea is appropriate.”
Crown attorney Philip Zylberberg told court last week several factors played into the deal, including “frailties” with the evidence — namely the level of intoxication of the killers and witnesses, many of whom were consuming a cornucopia of drugs and alcohol.
By Liam Casey, The Canadian Press