The NWT Court of Appeal has stayed the remainder of a 69-year-old man’s sentence for historic sexual assault due to “special and exceptional circumstances.”
In a written decision issued on Friday, Justices Myra Bielby and Dawn Pentelechuk said it was “in the interests of justice” to stay the remaining four months of Teddy Ronald Elias’ sentence as the Covid-19 pandemic had led to “travel and communication difficulties and delays.”
The judges said those delays not occurred, Elias would have already finished serving his one-year sentence.
The justices found Elias had suffered “significant collateral consequence” from being in jail as he lost long-term employment and housing in Sachs Harbour. He has since been awaiting rehousing in the community for two years, spending some of that time at a homeless shelter in Inuvik.
“If he were reincarcerated now, we are told that would reset his wait on getting accommodation in his home community,” the written decision reads.
In May 2018, Elias pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a teenager between 1982 and 1985, when he was in his thirties. He also pleaded guilty to committing an act of gross indecency against a six or seven-year-old child between 1980 and 1983. He was sentenced to 12 months in jail followed by two years of probation.
In September 2018, Elias appealed that sentence, arguing his lawyer hadn’t requested a conditional sentence – or house arrest – rather than jail as the lawyer misunderstood the law at the time.
Elias noted he attempted to report his crimes in 1994 and argued that had he been convicted then, he would have received a shorter sentence.
The court allowed Elias to be released from jail until his appeal could be heard.
Since that time, Elias has argued he should not be sent back to jail due to his age and health. His lawyer also argued Elias has been rehabilitated.
“In the over three decades since these offences, he has attempted to take responsibility for his criminal behaviour, remained sober, sought counselling, and led a modest and productive life,” the appeal decision states.
According to a pre-sentencing report, Elias, who is Inuvialuit, was exposed to alcoholism, abuse and neglect during his childhood and was sexually victimized – as well as victimizing others – while attending residential school. He has since struggled with alcoholism, mental health, and forming bonds with other people.
The Crown challenged Elias’ appeal, arguing a one-year sentence was “fit and proper” and the sentencing judge had paid “careful attention” to Elias’ circumstances.
The NWT appeal court justices said the “serious nature” of his crimes required jail time, not a conditional sentence, even though they happened almost 40 years ago.
Dissenting judge says appeal ‘highly dubious’
The third justice, Bruce McDonald, disagreed with the appeal court’s decision to stay the remainder of the sentence. He found there were no “special or exceptional circumstances” to justify the stay, and disagreed that it would be an injustice to send Elias back to jail.
McDonald called Elias’ appeal “highly dubious,” saying a conditional sentence would have been unfit in this case.
“He received a fit and proper sentence, and a lenient one at that,” the dissenting justice wrote.
“The only reason that the appellant had not completed his sentence prior to the end of 2019 was due to his own actions in appealing his fit and proper sentence.”
McDonald noted the pandemic did not come into play until March 2020. Finally, he said the sexual assaults had “serious long-term and negative consequences” on the victim.