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Covid-19 pauses more than 125 NWT criminal trials


With no trial dates being set in NWT Territorial Court, and some remanded inmates released to reduce jail populations, a Hay River man accused of a stabbing was granted bail on Monday.

Donald Alexander Jensen, 24, was supposed to go to trial later this month for aggravated assault in connection with the stabbing of a man in March 2019.

His is one of more than 125 confirmed or prospective trials in Territorial Court put on hold over fears of the novel coronavirus.

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“The trial date for Mr Jensen has been delayed because of the Covid-19 crisis,” Supreme Court Justice Shannon Smallwood said at a bail hearing on Monday.

“While he was supposed to have a trial later this month, those dates have been cancelled and it’s unknown when his trial will be rescheduled … Territorial Court is not setting trial dates at the moment.”

An update from Territorial Court Chief Judge Robert Gorin, dated April 28, stated all criminal, youth, wellness, and domestic violence treatment options court proceedings in the NWT up to July 6 are cancelled. At that time, matters will be rescheduled. 

When the first Covid-19 directives were issued in mid-March, the Territorial Court criminal docket showed more than 100 trials set to proceed between that point and May 4 in a range of NWT communities. 

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In addition, there were dozens of sentencing hearings and other types of appearances scheduled. 

“While these changes may result in disruption and some delay, it is necessary to be proactive under the circumstances,” stated Gorin.

“The situation will be monitored closely.”

‘No new hearing dates’

Many of the trials listed on the Territorial Court docket were for relatively minor charges such as breaching court orders. Cabin Radio counted multiple charges against one person as one trial for the purposes of this report.

Some of the charges will likely be resolved without going to trial after negotiations with the Crown. 

For the same period, the Supreme Court criminal docket – which generally handles more serious crimes and drug cases – showed nine trials through early May, including several with juries.

Some sentencing and bail applications have proceeded in recent weeks via video link. 

In a directive, Chief Justice Charbonneau stated sentencing hearings and hearings for submissions are proceeding with the accused appearing by video and counsel appearing by phone, as long as both parties agree. Hearings that cannot proceed remotely will be rescheduled. 

“No new hearing dates are being scheduled at this time,” stated Charbonneau. “Scheduling will resume when feasible to do so. This will include the possible rescheduling of matters already scheduled to proceed in the fall to free up time for cases that need to be given higher priority.”

Inmates screened

In early April, Minister of Justice Caroline Wawzonek announced seven inmates had been granted temporary absences. Each had fewer than three months left on their sentences.

As of April 17, three inmates at the North Slave Correctional Complex (NSCC) had been tested after showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 but all were cleared. 

At a bail hearing unrelated to the Jensen Case in April, Supreme Court heard every new NSCC inmate is screened for signs of illness first by front-line corrections staff, then by registered nurses.

The jail was below capacity and there was no double-bunking.

Jensen, represented by lawyer Alyssa Peeler, stands accused in relation to a report of a possible stabbing at a residence in the K’atl’odeeche First Nation on March 9 last year.

The victim was reportedly transferred to Stanton Territorial Hospital for further medical treatment of serious but not life-threatening injuries.

Jensen was granted bail that will see him live at his father’s residence, essentially under house arrest unless the pair are on the land this summer.

Three $1,000 no-cash sureties are in place along with other conditions.

Crown prosecutor Jeff Major-Hansford told the court other charges related to domestic violence – and not related to the aggravated assault file – had been stayed.

Jensen faces other, lesser charges in addition to the aggravated assault.

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