Richard Suter with his wife Gayska Suter, outside the Edmonton Law Courts building during his 2015 court proceedings. On Wednesday, the Alberta Court of Appeal increased his sentence from four months to 26 months.

When an Alberta court sentenced Richard Suter to four months in jail in the death of two-year-old Geo Mounsef, many people were outraged. 

Suter, as Edmonton remembers all too well, was the person who drove his car, at high speed, through an outdoor suburban restaurant patio, crushing and killing the toddler while he ate dinner with family.

Despite the fact Suter had been drinking that evening, he was never convicted of impaired driving. He pleaded guilty, instead, to failing to provide a breath sample. The judge gave him just four months, reasoning that Suter had received poor and misleading counsel from a legal aid lawyer who advised him not to give a breath sample. 

Suter didn’t serve the whole four months, though. He spent just 80 days in the Calgary Correctional Centre, known as Spyhill.

The Crown appealed. And so did Suter. His lawyer argued that the four-month sentence was too severe, and argued, too, for a reduction in the time Suter was banned from driving.

On Wednesday, Alberta’s Court of Appeal rendered its decision. It dismissed Suter’s appeal entirely. Instead, it threw out the original four-month sentence and imposed its own — 26 months, a far harsher penalty.

The appeal court’s ruling hinged on two main legal points. First, did Suter’s original legal aid lawyer tell him he had the right to refuse a breath test, and was that advice a mitigating factor? And second, what was Suter’s degree of moral culpability?

On the first point, the court was definitive. Suter’s legal aid lawyer, said the court, misunderstood the new law about refusing to provide a breath sample in the case of a fatality. Under changes made by the Harper government, refusing a breathalyzer after a fatal accident can be punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. Under the old law, the maximum penalty was only five years.

The Court of Appeal believed the testimony of the legal aid lawyer, who told the court that he had informed Suter — incorrectly — that the potential penalty for refusing to provide a breath sample was less than the possible penalty for impaired driving. Based on that testimony, the appeal judges found that Suter knew perfectly well that refusing the breathalyzer was a crime, even if he didn’t understand the possible severity of the sentence.

Suter’s refusal to provide a breath sample, said the panel, was a strategic one, an effort avoid a more serious punishment. And as such, they ruled, his decision to obstruct justice by refusing the legal order to take a breathalyzer was not mitigated by the lawyer’s inaccurate advice about the risks of breaking that law. (Suter is currently suing the lawyer and Alberta Legal Aid in civil court.)

Geo Mounsef was two years old when a car driven by Richard Suter crushed him while he sat on a restaurant patio.

Then there was the issue of moral culpability.

The judge in the original court proceedings found, on the balance of probabilities, that Suter was not impaired by alcohol that night.

Or course, because he refused to provide a breath sample that night, we’ll never know for certain what his blood alcohol might have been. But the appeal court noted that Suter was a chronic heavy drinker, and that by his own testimony he had had two one-ounce drinks of vodka and two-thirds of a beer in the hours leading up to the accident.

He had also been having other serious health problems.

Two weeks before the accident, he suffered from hallucinations so alarming that his wife called police, who took Suter to University Hospital for observation.

Two days before the accident, he went golfing with friends, drank three beers, fell, and hit his head on a building, cutting his face.

In the moments before the tragedy, Suter was in a raging fight with his wife, who told him she wanted a divorce. It was at that point that he accelerated and slammed his car through the restaurant patio, crushing the little boy.

The appeal court was damning in its assessment.

“The respondent, a mature man of life experience, with the capacity to decide for himself and (according to him) unaffected by intoxicants, decided to withhold crucial evidence as to his condition despite being required to do so by law,” said the court. 

“He chose to drive when his ability to drive was impaired by his own anger and poor health, and continued to drive while distracted by a serious emotional argument into an area where the risk of public injury through driving error was high.”

The court noted that Suter had also been the victim of a serious crime, maimed by kidnappers who cut off his thumb. But the panel also downplayed this as a mitigating factor in sentencing, noting that Suter’s sufferings were not caused by state action.

“Mr. Suter and his wife are very disappointed, of course, but they remain stoic,” says Suter’s lawyer, Dino Bottos. “They trusted in the system and the system let them down today.”

Bottos says he believes the Court of Appeal made an error in law, by re-interpreting the factual findings of the original judge. The sentencing judge found Suter honestly believed he had a legal right to refuse the breath test. The appeal court, though, determined that he had made a strategic choice to avoid the test. But Bottos says it was inappropriate for the court to do that.

“They are supposed to review and interpret the law, based on the finding of the original judge, and here they reinterpreted the facts.”

Bottos says he and his client are considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Canada’s highest court doesn’t grant leave to appeal easily, especially not in cases involving sentencings. Still, Bottos says he feels they may have solid grounds for appeal.

Until then, he says, his client will surrender himself to begin serving his sentence.

“Then, if we seek leave to appeal, we’ll seek bail pending that appeal.”

Justice for Geo? Well that, I suppose, depends very greatly on your perspective. Maybe such a thing is impossible. But for those who decried Suter’s original sentence, it will, perhaps, restore some sense of proportion.

Source: Edmonton Journal


Last updated on: 2016-08-17 | Link to this post