Levi Cayen’s fate is in the hands of a jury that began deliberating on Friday after a 20-day murder trial regarding the death of Alex Norwegian in Hay River five years ago.
Norwegian, 25, was supposed to meet up with a friend of his to sell crack cocaine. Instead, Cayen and another man showed up and the dealer was beaten, interrogated and robbed. Cayen is accused of first-degree murder.
On a bitterly cold December morning, Norwegian was left for dead in his badly damaged vehicle on the Kátł’odeeche First Nation’s Wilderness Road.
The jury heard three other people – all cousins – have already been sentenced for their roles. Sasha Cayen, 26, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 43 months. Tyler Cayen, 33, admitted being an accessory after the fact to manslaughter and was sentenced to two years less a day. Both were sentenced in January 2019 and both testified against Levi Cayen.
But the jury did not fully learn of the case of James George Thomas, who was found guilty of second-degree murder last year and sentenced in December to life in prison without parole for at least 10 years.
Justice Andrew Mahar had imposed a sweeping publication ban on the detail of Thomas’ trial, designed to ensure publication of details did not bias the jurors now sequestered until a verdict is reached regarding Levi Cayen.
Mahar didn’t want the wider public to hear his reasons for handing Thomas the legal minimum period of parole ineligibility for second-degree murder, an offence for which life imprisonment is automatic.
In sentencing Thomas on December 15 last year, Mahar said he found Thomas guilty of second-degree murder “essentially because of his decision to leave Alex Norwegian.”
Norwegian was nearly unconscious as he tried to drive his badly vandalized car away and got stuck in a snowbank. He died of hypothermia, while an expert witness said his cracked skull from the assault played a role in his death. He was not found until the following day.
“I found as facts that James Thomas neither intended to cause serious injury to Alex Norwegian, nor was aware of the extent of those injuries until shortly before deciding to leave the location of the robbery,” Mahar stated at the time, noting Levi Cayen was far more intoxicated than Thomas.
“I did not find that James Thomas intended that the vehicle have all the windows smashed out. I also did not find he took Alex Norwegian’s coat for the purpose of making him more vulnerable to the elements.”
However, once Thomas became aware Norwegian might not be able to drive himself to safety, the judge said, Thomas had a responsibility to make sure Norwegian was not left exposed to the elements.
Thomas’ role in the robbery imposed on him a “duty to act,” said the judge.
“It is in this context the element of recklessness – whether or not if death ensues – comes into play, which is actually quite unusual in murder cases,” he said.
“It falls just over the line between manslaughter and second-degree murder.”
Thomas, 25 at the time of his arrest, was initially charged with first-degree murder and robbery.
He had a short and minor criminal record but “engaged in the drug trade,” although apparently at a low level, noted Mahar. He was addicted to methamphetamine and had a long-term issue with alcohol.
At that sentencing hearing, Mahar spoke directly to the family of Norwegian, who had been in court for every day of all related proceedings. They have also been attending this latest murder trial.
“I wish that this was the end of things for you, but I know you have another proceeding to go through. I can only wish you the best on that journey,” the judge said in December.
Prosecutor: There can be no doubt
On Wednesday this week, in his closing presentation regarding Levi Cayen, Crown prosecutor Duane Praught said Norwegian froze to death because of the beating delivered by Cayen and Thomas.
“He did not go there for just a cocaine buy. He took part in the discussions, he prepared and he went to rob Mr Norwegian and was expecting violence,” said Praught of Cayen.
“One does not rob a crack cocaine dealer [in the] middle of the night, in an isolated location, without anticipating violence.
“When you consider the totality of the evidence, all of the circumstances in this case … there’s no reasonable doubt that Mr Cayen murdered Alex Norwegian.”
Praught said Cayen knew the harm that would come from the cold.
“He knew it and he made a choice and he left. He took a chance, and Mr Norwegian died as a result of his recklessness.”
Defence: Cayen not involved in homicide
Defence lawyer Alan Regel suggested there were problems with the RCMP’s original investigation and offered alternative theories of what might have happened on December 27, 2017.
“I’ll be asking you to interpret the evidence in specific manner, and make inferences. It’s your choice to determine if the evidence leads to the conclusions that I suggested,” Regel told the jurors.
“Levi didn’t cause the death. I suggest it’s a waste of time for me to be talking about that and wasting your time … Levi was not involved in the homicide.”
He reminded the jury his client had pleaded guilty to robbery at the start of the trial.
“I have no idea what you may have read or heard about as a result of the other proceedings. I have absolutely no way of challenging anything that you might have heard or read about in the past,” said Regel.
“All I can respond to is the evidence that you heard before you in this courtroom over the last several weeks.
“With all the drinking and the drugs that were abused that night [and the passage of time], it might well be that nobody knows exactly what happened.”