“He learned it because when his father was disciplining him ... he grabbed him by the throat and picked him up off the ground,” Ward’s lawyer, Edward Horembala, told territorial court Friday afternoon. “That is the norm he grew up with.”
Two weeks ago, Ward pleaded guilty to strangling his girlfriend, 15-year-old Maranda Peter, in 1996 and keeping her body under his waterbed for over a year. The largest courtroom in Whitehorse’s law centre was filled daily during his sentencing hearing, where details of Peter’s death were heard for the first time. Horembala told Judge Heino Lilles he should consider a three-year jail sentence for Ward and take his difficult childhood into account.
Crown attorneys asked Lilles to send the young man to jail for three to five years – a range that considers his youth, but also sends a message that the heinous crime he committed is not acceptable. Ward was 16 when he killed Peter – two weeks shy of her 16th birthday.
“This court must show that the conduct of the accused on March 2nd was deplorable,” said prosecutor Cindy Freedman. She said she and lead prosecutor Judy Hartling accepted a manslaughter plea because Ward was too drunk at the time of the killing to “form specific intent.” When Ward was arrested, he was charged with first-degree murder. The charge of second-degree murder and doing an indignity to a body were stayed.
Lilles should consider “the highest end of the range” because “the accused acted in character when killing Maranda Peter and continued to act that way after (he killed her) ... he has not learned his lesson,” said Freedman. During the hearing, witnesses said Peter had been choked by her boyfriend at least once before her death. Other witnesses testified Ward had choked them after Peter’s death.
Rehabilitating Ward was important to the Crown, the defence and the judge. Much of the consideration over where Ward should be placed was based on what programs would be available. Both the Crown and Horembala want Ward to take part in an eight-month violent offender program offered in B.C.
During closing arguments, Freedman said Ward’s “complete disrespect for Maranda Peter’s body” should be seen as insight into his troubled personality. Ward “continued to live and sleep and entertain in that room,” knowing the whole time Peter’s body was stuffed under his bed. During an interview with a psychologist, Ward was reported to have said he hardly thought about her body – an example of his lack of remorse, said Freedman. Ward’s alcohol abuse was also an issue.
“This accused has a serious drinking problem,” said Freedman. By the time Ward was 15, he was drinking 12 to 15 bottles of beer and 20 ounces of hard liquor a day. While drunk, Ward choked Peter unconscious less than two months before killing her. “And this didn’t teach him a lesson,” said Freedman. “At some point, Sir, a person must learn a lesson.”
Horembala argued his client’s early alcohol abuse was a symptom of his upbringing, and therefore should be seen as out of his control. Ward “virtually had, through his life, no reasonable parental supervision,” he said. “Nothing can be more succinctly said after Mr. Ward’s (Sr.) appearance today,” said Horembala, referring to Ward Sr.’s brief visit on Friday morning.
Ward’s father was in court after being subpoenaed by the Crown to make suggestions as to where his son should be sent. Saying he had no idea what options were available and complaining about being forced to come to court, Ward Sr. walked out after saying: “I got nothing more to say.”
Professionals assessing Ward indicated his father was “totally uncooperative” with doctors trying to gather information, said Horembala. At an early age, Ward was sent to go live with his mother in Washington State, but removed “because of alcohol abuse,” said Horembala. “It is not a question of shifting blame,” he said. “We know that aside from the offence he committed, (Ward) had some serious problems ... “(But) no one stepped in to do anything about it.”
Reports from doctors said Ward had no psychological or personality disorders, so “where does James Ward learn how to behave, with not only women, but with other men? ... It is not normal. It is not one case of lashing out. It appears to be part of his norm,” said Horembala.
An apology to Peter’s parents had been written, said Horembala. But both lawyer and client felt it best to wait to deliver the message after the hearing. It was not his intention to use the apology to get a lighter sentence, so Ward decided to send the message at a later date, said Horembala. Ward was to be sentenced this afternoon.
Speaking about her slain friend Maranda Peter, a 14-year-old Ross River girl opened the door for a frightening look into the life she says is led by many aboriginal teenagers in her community.
“I know how it feels not knowing if you are going to see tomorrow,” she said. The girl, who cannot be identified because of her age, spoke of early alcohol abuse and adults who didn’t care. She was addressing territorial court Judge Heino Lilles at the sentencing hearing of James Joe Ward, 18, who pleaded guilty to strangling Peter in 1996.
“There is nobody to talk to ... it is hard, especially when you have grown up in a home where you feel no one cares about you. “How can you talk to someone when you don’t trust anyone?” asked the girl, who broke into tears and leaned on a friend for support while she spoke. She said kids get their alcohol from adults willing to buy it for them.
There was much discussion during the hearing about Ward’s alcohol abuse, which started when he was 13. “People have to be more concerned about the youth,” said the judge. “It is important to really think about other people getting into drugs and alcohol. It is a serious thing.”
Speaking directly to the girl, Lilles said: “You are one of the most impressive 14-year-olds I have ever met. It takes immense strength and courage to come into this courtroom, in front of these numbers of people about this tragic event ... you have sounded an alarm. It is not the first time it has been sounded ... but you have rung it again. “Maybe, just maybe, someone will pay attention.”
The girl asked the judge to ensure that there is justice for her dead friend. “She was a very strong person ... She was happy all the time. She always had that smile on her face. She touched everybody she met, and she didn’t deserve what happened to her at all.
“Her life was cut short so fast, it is not fair. Justice has to be served before it happens to anyone else,” she said.
By Kathleen Goldhar