Warning: This report contains details from a murder trial, as heard in court, that readers may find disturbing.
Wilfred Abraham was too intoxicated to have intended to murder Ralph Sifton and should instead be found guilty of manslaughter, Abraham’s defence lawyer argued on Thursday.
The 55-year-old, on trial for second-degree murder, admits he took the life of 48-year-old Sifton in Fort Smith after a day of heavy drinking on August 13, 2018.
“The question of intoxication animates this case from the get-go,” said defence lawyer Austin Corbett, speaking to Supreme Court Justice Andrew Mahar in the judge-only trial.
“He was at the upper level of advanced intoxication … such that there was no foresight of the consequences. [Abraham] was drinking basically all day; intoxicated around town all day.
“He was so well-known to so many members of he community … they knew what he was like when he was drunk … even police had dealt with Mr Abraham so many times, they knew him when he was sober and when he was intoxicated.”
Over the course of the trial – which started in Yellowknife on September 15 then moved to Fort Smith before returning to the capital this week – the court heard Abraham was a chronic alcoholic whose addiction was well-known in the border town of some 2,500 people.
On the day of Sifton’s killing, Abraham had been seen around the community in a “dazed stupor,” yelling at people, riding his bicycle in an erratic manner, and sipping from bottles of 20-percent fortified Private Stock wine.
“He was homeless. All his belongings were in his backpack,” said Corbett, noting his client was turned away from the Fort Smith homeless shelter that night for being too intoxicated.
The court heard Abraham and Sifton had been seen earlier in the day drinking together – “without any difficulties, noted Corbett – and at 6pm Abraham was alone, yelling and swearing at people outside a bank.
One hour later, he was seen swerving across the street as he attempted to ride his bicycle.
At 10:30pm, he tried to enter the homeless shelter but was turned away. He left some belongings behind, then apparently fell asleep on a couch in the yard of a nearby house.
Confrontation in the dark
He was woken after being kicked in the head by Sifton.
Abraham apparently then left the yard and returned to the shelter to retrieve his belongings, where it was noticed he had an injury to his head.
Returning to the yard shortly after 11pm – it was dark, with no lights in the vicinity – Abraham confronted Sifton and started attacking him.
“This was not a coordinated assault, this was an all-over-the-place assault that at one point caused death,” said Corbett, adding it’s unclear exactly what happened.
“[The coroner said] it was a fairly chaotic scene, with a number of objects that could have caused [Sifton’s] injuries.”
An autopsy found Sifton had several injuries to his head, one of which caused a fracture of his skull that was unsurvivable. Sifton’s blood and DNA were found on a five-pound dumbbell that might have been used as a weapon.
The yard was covered in blood spatters, but RCMP did not call in an expert to analyze them. Police also didn’t test Abraham for his blood-alcohol content, but Sifton’s was found to be three times the legal driving limit.
“It’s clear the accused was punching the deceased, not using a weapon,” suggested Corbett.
Abraham had a pocket knife on him, but he did not use it in the attack.
A witness testified she saw Abraham dragging a lifeless Sifton in a circle around the yard, yelling “get up, wake up,” perhaps 100 times and asking for help.
Question of intent
When police arrived, they encountered a blood-covered Abraham and were forced to Taser him when he refused to lay on the ground to be handcuffed.
In the glow of a flashlight, officers could see Sifton’s body laying on a blood-stained carpet.
Abraham told the officers he had been kicked in the face and stabbed.
Taken to the Fort Smith Health Centre by RCMP, Abraham said to a healthcare worker: “I hope he’s dead, I wanted to kill him.”
The healthcare worker testified Abraham said: “I guess I’ll hang for this.”
On Thursday, Corbett argued that those admissions weren’t an indication of intent, rather “a guilty mind … [not] intent.”
When asked the following day by RCMP what he remembered from the previous night, Abraham reportedly said: “A little bit.”
Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane told Justice Mahar that Abraham’s admissions to the healthcare worker “go to the heart of intent.”
Fane disputed any suggestion that Abraham delivered the fatal blows immediately after being kicked in the head, which would fortify arguments he reacted immediately to a physical threat, thus removing the elements of planning needed to substantiate a second-degree murder conviction.
“Mr Abraham did not deliver four fatal blows, then retrieve his shoes from the shelter,” he said. Instead, Abraham left the yard after being kicked in the head and was “ruminating, dwelling, smouldering” during his walk to the homeless shelter before returning to attack Sifton.
Justice Mahar interjected, noting Abraham was a “seasoned alcoholic,” and that “this is a man who becomes belligerent when he’s drinking.”
Mahar reserved his decision until October 15.