Canada must treat young killers gently, court says

Fri May 16, 2008 11:31am EDT
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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian courts must treat juvenile killers more leniently than adults unless the government can show compelling reasons to give them adult sentences, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Friday.

The high court said adolescents have "diminished moral culpability" and should not have to prove that they should be given youth sentences. In each instance, the onus will now be on prosecutors to make the case that adult sentences should be applied.

"Young people are entitled to a presumption of diminished moral culpability," Justice Rosalie Abella wrote for the court's 5-4 majority decision. "Young people...are decidedly but differently accountable."

The case involved a 17-year-old, identified as D.B., who sought to pick a fight with 18-year-old Jonathan Romero outside a mall. Romero did not defend himself, but D.B. knocked him unconscious and Romero died of his injuries.

The 17-year-old was convicted of manslaughter and given a youth sentence of 30 months in a juvenile correctional facility plus six months' supervision.

The prosecution had sought an adult sentence of five years' imprisonment. But the lower court ruled unconstitutional the section of the Youth Criminal Justice Act that said adult sentences should be given for manslaughter and murder unless young offenders show otherwise.

The government appealed and lost, both at the Ontario Court of Appeal and now at the Supreme Court of Canada. The case will not be reopened.

Justice Marshall Rothstein, writing the dissent, disagreed that the section of the Youth Criminal Justice Act was unconstitutional, noting that under it young offenders still had the right to satisfy the court that adult sentences should not apply.

The question of how to treat young offenders has also emerged in the case of Omar Khadr, the only Canadian being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He is charged with having thrown a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in 2002, when he was 15. A range of critics say he should be treated as a child soldier rather than tried as an adult.

(Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Peter Galloway)