Warning: This report contains details of a sexual assault and murder case, as heard in court, that readers may find disturbing.
Keenan McNeely stood in court on Tuesday morning and, for the first time, apologized for murdering Charlotte Lafferty.
Charlotte's body was found behind Fort Good Hope's community centre in March 2014. Her case has been in the NWT's courts for more than three years.
On Tuesday, McNeely – convicted of brutally beating and sexually assaulting the young mother – was trying to appeal being sentenced to life in prison as an adult for first-degree murder. He was a 17-year-old at the time of the crime.
The Court of Appeal panel dismissed his case later in the morning.
“I’d like to say I’m truly sorry for putting Charlotte’s family through this and putting my family through this,” he said, reading from a page of scribbled notes.
“I would do anything to take back that tragic day and I hope and pray they will forgive me.
“I know I made a big mistake, I really hope, one day, Charlotte’s family will forgive me and we can start to heal. I take responsibility for this.”
With support workers on either side of her, Charlotte's mother, Louisa, dabbed her eyes with a tissue as she watched McNeely speak from the witness box.
Outside the courtroom, Louisa Lafferty said she was relieved her family's protracted legal ordeal is finally over.
“This has been a long, long, long, road,” she said, noting family members are gathering in Yellowknife to spend time at the on-the-land healing camp.
“We’re going to start our healing journey … I just want to go for a good walk, have a good cigarette, and get to my kids. I’m going to call my parents and let them know what happened.
“Today was the last court. Now, we have to start thinking of our future. Everything was on pause. I just want to enjoy this feeling right now.”
'Closure' for family
The three-judge Court of Appeal panel dismissed McNeely’s assertion he should not have been sentenced as an adult. The panel also rejected his appeal to serve his sentence at a northern jail.
The panel instead upheld the decision, made two years ago by NWT Supreme Court Justice Louise Charbonneau, to send McNeely to prison as an adult for first-degree murder, with no chance of parole for 10 years.
Charlotte Lafferty, 23, was a single mother of twin boys.
The panel, this time comprised of three senior female judges from outside the NWT, also upheld the lower court’s decision to have him serve the sentence in a federal penitentiary, where appropriate programming can be accessed.
“No-one has ever served a life sentence in a territorial facility,” the panel stated. “A territorial facility would be ill-suited to house a victim committed of a crime with the level of brutality displayed here.
“Mr McNeely needs serious, long-term intervention if he is ever to [be released] without posing a threat to the public.”
McNeely said he was “going through a lot” when he killed Lafferty, as his younger sister had just died.
He started drinking heavily at the time and socializing with an older crowd. He said he also wasn’t listening to his parents.
During McNeely’s trial, the court heard McNeely had become increasingly violent leading up to the time Lafferty's body was found in the Sahtu community of 500.
Lafferty, 23, was a single mother of twin boys who had gone out the night before with friends. Court heard Lafferty had been beaten with a large stick, urinated on, and sexually assaulted. She was left to die in bloodstained snow.
On Tuesday, before the Court of Appeal, McNeely – represented by Ottawa lawyer John Hale, funded by Legal Aid – said he shouldn’t be sentenced as an adult.
“I know I should be punished for this, but not as an adult sentence,” he said. “I was 17 at the time, one month short of my 18th birthday.”
McNeely’s lawyer – who praised Justice Charbonneau’s work on the original trial as being “impeccable and sensitive” – told court there has been no programming offered to his client in the time he has been at the maximum-security prison in Edmonton.
However, this was likely due to the pending appeal.
Outside court, Crown attorney Blair McPherson said he was pleased with the Court of Appeal’s decision.
“Finally, after many years, this is the end of this case,” he said. “It’s closure for the families, for the community – and also for victim services and the RCMP.
“The RCMP did an excellent investigation in this matter. That should be acknowledged.”
McNeely will be eligible for parole in March 2024.
If he had been sentenced as a youth, he could have already been released.