Warning: This report contains details from a murder trial, as heard in court, that readers may find disturbing.
Ralph Sifton’s struggle with alcoholism put him at risk but he was a “loving, caring” man who didn’t deserve to be beaten to death in a drunken altercation with his uncle, a court heard on Monday.
Wilfred Abraham, 56, should serve between four and seven years for manslaughter after his 48-year-old nephew’s death in Fort Smith on August 13, 2018, lawyers argued in NWT Supreme Court.
At the sentencing hearing, a letter from Ralph’s brother, Tyler Abraham, described his loss as “challenging for many of us.”
Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane, reading the letter aloud, continued: “Ralph’s lifestyle was one where there was risk of early death – that’s a given. The unfortunate part is his death is not the way anyone should leave this Earth.
“We wished he passed peacefully, out of old age. The events surrounding his death were hard [for the family] to hear.”
The letter detailed the family’s appreciation of so many kind words shared about Ralph during Abraham’s trial, highlighting his “positive side” and “all the good he did for others and how he treated people with respect.”
Growing up in Fort Nelson, BC, Ralph’s father committed suicide when he was young. His mother sent Ralph to live with his grandmother in Fort Smith in his teens. He enjoyed being in the outdoors and engaging in traditional activities that helped connect him to his Dene roots.
He would hunt big game and give it to others. He was good with his hands and did odd jobs.
“Some would see him as the town drunk, but there was more to Ralph than this,” Fane read from the letter. “He was a kind-hearted soul, one who looked after his family and friends. No matter what his state was, he thought of his friends. He had a smile to share … he did his best to make others laugh.
“My hope is that his tragic death helps others feel comfortable talking about mental health. Through Wilfred’s actions, it has caused more grief to both his and Ralph’s families and a division among family and community members [that is not easily mended].”
When Abraham drank with his younger nephew, the court heard, the mood often turned hostile.
Abraham has admitted using a five-pound hand-weight to cause the massive skull fractures that killed his nephew, and acknowledged he had not acted in self-defence.
Rather, Abraham was “enraged” as Ralph had a short time earlier kicked him in the face with a steel-toed workboot as he lay drunk on a couch.
‘I know what alcohol does’
Abraham’s early admission of manslaughter was rejected by the Crown, which decided to proceed to trial for second-degree murder.
However, last fall, Justice Andrew Mahar ruled Abraham wanted to give his nephew a beating in return for the kick in the face but did not want to kill him.
Mahar must now decide whether to side with the Crown and send Abraham to a federal prison, where he would be eligible for parole and stricter supervision, perhaps at a halfway house in Edmonton where the prisoner wants to start a new life.
Or the judge can accept defence lawyer Austin Corbett’s submission that a shorter sentence in a territorial jail would be more appropriate, followed by a lengthy period of probation.
Mahar said he will render his sentencing decision on Tuesday morning.
Whichever way the judge leans, he will have to deduct three years and nine months’ remand credit Abraham has earned in the North Slave Correctional Complex.
As with his nephew, Corbett said Abraham had a troubling upbringing, with the tragic loss of family members and struggles with intergenerational trauma.
“Alcoholism slowly took over a once-promising life,” the lawyer said, noting Abraham has taken counselling and immersed himself in his Christian faith while behind bars.
The court heard the time spent waiting for the completion of his trial is the longest period of sobriety Abraham has ever enjoyed.
He had failed to recover after being sent to southern treatment centres some seven or eight times.
Abraham, who apologized to the relatives and friends of the man he killed and also to his own family, told the court he is learning how to deal with his past.
“I know what alcohol does and I know what it did to me. I see what it’s doing to everyone,” he said.
“I can’t change the past, so I look forward to a future without alcohol.”