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Beaufort Delta
Justice

Judge bows out of case after clash over Indigenous heritage


The fate of a man who trafficked drugs in Inuvik – caught with nearly $32,000 and 44 grams of cocaine in his backpack – was finally determined after contentious legal arguments regarding his heritage.

NWT Territorial Court Chief Judge Robert Gorin took over Peter Antimo Battisti’s case after the original judge’s hearings were mired in disputes over court procedures and whether Battisti’s partial Indigenous heritage should be considered a mitigating factor – over the accused’s objections.

The Crown had argued in January that Peter Battisti is Indigenous in the eyes of the law as his mother is partially of Ojibwe ancestry. That factored into a joint sentencing recommendation of a total of 36 months for the drug charges and other matters transferred to Yellowknife from Sudbury.

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However, Battisti, 21, of Sudbury, had told the court he was not exposed to Indigenous culture while growing up, his Italian background being more prominent.

“My mother is half Indigenous. I am 25-percent Indigenous,” the defendant had said. “I didn’t go through any generational trauma … I never went through no trauma that Indigenous people went through. What I did was wrong to come out here. I should never came out here and I take full responsibility for my actions.”

On May 20, 2021, an RCMP officer patrolling Inuvik’s Kingmingya Road observed a hand-to-hand drug transaction in the parking lot of the Corner Store. During his arrest, Battisti gave a false name. Police found $31,890 in five bundles in his backpack, along with cocaine packaged for sale in 82 baggies.

After hearing a joint sentencing submission from prosecutor Sonya Sehgal and defence lawyer Jay Bran – who each referenced Battisti’s Indigenous heritage to different extents – the original judge, Donovan Molloy, said he felt legally required to take that heritage under consideration and would order a pre-sentence report as he needed more information.

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Molloy bristled at what he considered a lenient sentence proposed for the repeat offender, who had previous drug convictions and had been “violent” while on remand at North Slave Correctional Complex.

“The only way he is getting a sentence in the range that is being proposed [a total of 36 months] is if he does have significant Gladue factors,” Molloy said on January 27, referring to the Gladue principle that asks judges to consider the background factors of Indigenous offenders when sentencing them.

“People are free to act against their own best interests, right? I accept that. It is a fact of life,” said the judge. “But even though people can make decisions that are against their best interest, I think the court has a broader responsibility.

“We have communities of vulnerable people who, by virtue of the impacts of colonialism and discrimination, are rife with addictions problems and being abused by people coming up from the south. And here we have a person … who came up from the south … with a prior conviction for trafficking and comes up here to prey upon the vulnerable people in Inuvik.”

Proposal ‘is lenient’

Defence lawyer Bran said Battisti found himself on the streets of Sudbury at the age of 16. Drugs and illegal activities were commonplace.

“He’s told me that some of his close friends are gone and he’s never had a chance to spend any time with them before they passed, and he doesn’t want to be one of those kids that can’t get himself out of this lifestyle and ends up dying,” said Bran, noting his client has completed his GED while in remand custody.

In addition to charges of trafficking and obstructing police from Inuvik, Battisti also pleaded guilty to several charges from May and July in Sudbury, including impaired driving and refusing a breathalyzer test, uttering threats, possessing a weapon for a dangerous purpose, assault with a weapon and breaching a probation order.

On March 11, tempers flared when Molloy wasn’t pleased with the quality of lawyers’ written submissions and their continued mention of Battisti’s Indigenous heritage – the defence minimizing it, the Crown relying on it.

Defence lawyer Bran said information suggesting Battisti is of partial Indigenous heritage has to be taken into account, “but I’m not sure the court can really put much weight on that aspect of his background,” as he was essentially was raised in an Italian family with little if any Indigenous contact.

A frustrated Molloy said he needed to recuse himself as, if he upturned the joint sentencing submission and imposed a harsher term, it could be considered retaliation toward the lawyers.

On Monday, Chief Judge Gorin went along with the joint submission, which had been slightly refined from its original presentation in January.

“What is being proposed by counsel is lenient,” Gorin said, noting cocaine trafficking has had a devastating effect on the NWT.

“I think if it were not for the joint solution, I would very likely have imposed a sentence well in excess of what counsel are proposing, but not so much in excess that would meet the test for me to reject the joint submission.”

Eleven months of remand time was subtracted from Battisti’s sentence. He will have to pay $2,500 in fines for the impaired driving charges and is prohibited from having firearms for 10 years.

Battisti will have to forfeit the drugs, cash and a machete seized as evidence.

How or why Battisti ended up in Inuvik was never explained.

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