R. v. Walker: Making It Slightly Safer To Be A Drunken Idiot
Last week the Supreme Court released its decision in R. v. Walker, 2008 SCC 34. The decision is not particularly groundbreaking, but further defines the guidelines of what is required of judges when discussing their reasons for acquittal in a murder case.
The facts of the case are straightforward: the accused, Bradley Gene Walker, shot and killed his common-law wife. Mr. Walker was found at trial to have been seriously intoxicated at the time of the shooting, and his account of the situation was that he had not intended to kill his wife, but merely use the gun to scare her. (Mr. Walker, at trial, noted that in hindsight this was idiotic.) Mr. Walker was charged with second degree murder and opted for trial by a judge rather than a jury; Kovach J. convicted him of manslaughter rather than murder, and sentenced him to eight years in prison. After applying double credit for the time spent in pre-trial custody, Mr. Walker’s prison sentence was five and a half years.
The Crown appealed the decision, and the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal reversed it. Cameron J.A. found that although Kovach J. had explained his general reasons for not finding Mr. Walker guilty of murder, he had not explained the specifics of his reasoning well enough to support acquittal. Mr. Walker appealed.
The relevant text of Kovach J.’s original decision regarding Mr. Walker’s state of mind is as follows:
Although it’s not a specific finding of fact, it is my distinct impression that in part due to the effects of alcohol and in part to his personality, at the time of the shooting Walker was engaged in an act of bravado or machismo. He was showing off his latest toy [the shotgun] in an effort to intimidate Ms. Reynolds and impress her with his disappointment at her failure to embrace his desire to engage in a sexual threesome and her gall at walking away from him at the bar.
As disgusting and as utterly contemptuous as I find that conduct to be, it is not and I cannot find it to be tantamount to an intention to kill or an intention to cause bodily harm likely to cause death. And under the circumstances, I find Walker not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter.
The Crown’s argument in this case was simple: since the trial judge didn’t explain specifically whether he was acquitting on the murder charge because Walker was intoxicated or because Walker shot his wife accidentally, he did not fulfill his judicial duty to clearly explain the acquittal, and thus the acquittal could not stand, as stated in R v. Sheppard, 2002 SCC 26. The Crown further cited R v. Kendall, (2005) 75 O.R. (3d) 565, as a prior example of a case where a judge’s inadequate elaboration in their decision led the Supreme Court to overturn an acquittal.
However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Crown’s submissions. Justice Binnie’s reasons here are of a kind with those laid down in last week’s decision in R v. J.H.S.2008 SCC 30, where he made a strong argument for a common-sense application of the law to the problem at hand. Here, again, Justice Binnie dismisses an argument that, while technically sound, fails to adhere to the spirit of the law.
The spirit of the law in a murder trial is of course that the burden lies upon the Crown to establish the existence of mens rea. Although Kovach J. did not go into the minutiae of explaining why the culpable homicide could not be a murder, he laid out the broad argument quite sufficiently: Mr. Walker was stupidly careless, at least partly as a result of being drunk. Although the Court recognizes the importance of maintaining the duties enumerated in R. v. Sheppard, it felt that this was not an example of those duties being abandoned, and explicitly disagreed with the comparison to R. v. Kendall, where the trial judge wrote an extremely terse and insufficient decision.
Justice Binnie writes at para. 26:
…the effect of alcohol was a destabilizing factor that turned a “machismo” attempt to “intimidate” and “impress” Ms. Reynolds into a tragedy that the trial judge was unable to find was intended to “kill or . . . to cause bodily harm likely to cause death”. In my view, on a fair reading of the trial judge’s reasons as a whole, his reasonable doubt as to intent was raised by what he considered to be the real possibility that the shooting was the result of an accident in which the appellant’s alcohol consumption played a significant role.
This is, to this writer’s thinking, eminently the right ruling. Justice Binnie does not lower the bar on the requirement of judges to provide adequate reasons for their sentencing, but instead discusses how the trial judge satisfied that requirement. Ultimately, the most important element of any murder case is the presence of mens rea, and Kovach J.’s reasons adequately explain why, to his mind, there was reasonable doubt as to its existence. Once that reasonable doubt is present, it is not unreasonable to advance multiple reasons for it being present.