PHOTO: Alexandre Bissonnette is escorted to a van after appearing in court for the deadly shooting at a mosque, Monday, January 30, 2017 in Quebec City. Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press
Canada’s highest court turned its attention to the constitutionality of consecutive life sentences for multiple murders on Thursday, hearing arguments about whether the gunman who killed six men at a Quebec City mosque in 2017 can be sentenced to more than 25 years in prison.
Alexandre Bissonnette was originally sentenced to life in prison without being eligible for parole for 40 years after pleading guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder. On appeal, Quebec’s highest court reduced that to a life sentence without parole eligibility for 25 years.
On Thursday, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner questioned Quebec Crown prosecutor François Gaudin on whether the consecutive sentences he’s seeking amount to a death sentence for Bissonnette, since the killer would be 77 when he becomes eligible for parole.
“According to your argument, sir, this gentleman will never get out of prison,” Wagner said.
Gaudin argued that consecutive sentences totalling 50 years of parole ineligibility are the only way to reflect the heinous nature of Bissonnette’s crimes. He said that in Bissonnette’s case, the ideals of rehabilitation and reintegration into society should be “secondary objectives.”
When Wagner noted that the average age at which prisoners die is 61, Gaudin replied, “If in prison he takes charge of his life, there’s a chance he’ll be freed.”
He added, “I understand it’s at the age of 77.”
In sentencing Bissonnette in 2019, a Quebec Superior Court judge rewrote a 2011 federal law that granted courts the right to impose consecutive sentences in blocks of 25 years for multiple murders, saying the law amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
While he did not strike down the section of law, Justice François Huot rewrote it to give himself the discretion to deliver consecutive life sentences that are not in blocks of 25 years.
The Court of Appeal agreed that consecutive sentencing violated the charter but decided the lower court judge erred in granting the killer a 40-year sentence. It said the court must revert to the law as it stood before 2011, meaning the parole ineligibility periods are to be served concurrently, resulting in a total waiting period of 25 years in Bissonnette’s case.
A lawyer representing the Quebec government argued Thursday there is an “iniquity” when a murderer who kills multiple people is given the same sentence as someone who kills one.
Once again, Wagner noted that the death penalty was abolished in Canada in 1976 and that most Canadians disagree with the idea of a prisoner being incarcerated for life.
“Rehabilitation is part of our fundamental values in the matter of sentencing,” he told government lawyer Jean-François Paré.
Paré, meanwhile, argued that the right for a judge to order consecutive sentences was brought in to “better reflect the seriousness of the sentences and the increased severity of the sentences for a multiple murderer.”
When questioned by Justice Russell Brown, Paré recognized that a 50-year sentence without parole was “absolutely” the equivalent of a life sentence. But a judge makes a decision that is “just and proportionate,” and if that’s not the case, it can be appealed, Paré said.
“That’s the problem,” insisted Justice Mahmud Jamal. “The sentence does not recognize the possibility of rehabilitation.”
Justice Suzanne Côté, for her part, noted that the judge has limited discretion when it comes to sentencing, because Parliament decided first-degree murder sentences should run in blocks of 25 years.
Bissonnette pleaded guilty in March 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder after he stormed into a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire on Muslim men as they prayed.
His murder victims were Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41; Khaled Belkacemi, 60; Aboubaker Thabti, 44; Azzeddine Soufiane, 57; and Ibrahima Barry, 39. In addition to the men killed, five others were struck by bullets.
In their submission to the top court, Bissonnette’s lawyers argued the Court of Appeal had correctly applied the law when it reduced his parole eligibility to 25 years.