Photo by Whitehorse Star
Photo by Whitehorse Star
Michael Nehass has been in jail, awaiting trial, for two years and 11 months.
On Thursday, he pleaded guilty to five charges in territorial court, even though he disputes the Crown’s version of events.
At recent court appearances, Nehass has said he is so desperate to get out of jail, he’s willing to plead guilty to all of his charges in hopes of being released with time served.
“I want to get this done,” he said at a hearing two weeks ago. “I’m not guilty, but I’m going to plead guilty. I want out of here.”
But even with Thursday’s guilty pleas, he will likely spend a few more months in jail as he and the Crown work out an agreed statement of facts for the five charges.
Typically, when an accused intends to plead guilty, he or she will work with the Crown to come up with an agreed statement of facts – the circumstances of an offence that both parties agree upon – before entering a guilty plea in court.
The 30-year-old accused appeared in court yesterday with his lawyer, Bibhas Vaze, before Judge Donald Luther.
Alarmingly thin, Nehass sat handcuffed and shackled in the prisoner’s box, wearing prison reds, with two sheriffs and two RCMP officers in the courtroom.
At Nehass’ request, the judge allowed him to sit at the table with his lawyer.
Crown prosecutor Eric Marcoux said he intended to seek a long-term offender or dangerous offender designation if Nehass pleaded guilty to all his charges, but this requires a psychiatric assessment that could take up to 60 days.
Until then, Marcoux said, he’d ask the judge to keep him in custody.
But Nehass objected to a longer wait in jail.
“In that case, I’ll just take it on the chin. I’d like to plead guilty on all my charges,” he said.
He’d accept long-term offender status without an assessment in order to hurry up the process, he added.
But when Marcoux read through a drafted statement of facts, not yet agreed upon by Nehass, he became agitated, calling it “fictitious.”
Yet he decided to plead guilty anyways.
“I’m going to plead guilty to this charge,” he said. “I don’t agree with these facts, but I guess I have to plead guilty.”
Vaze said he was uncomfortable with pleas being accepted by the judge in these circumstances.
Given Nehass’ desperation to get out of jail, he’s willing to plead guilty to charges he doesn’t believe he’s guilty of.
What’s the alternative? Luther wondered.
“What we’re left with is Mr. Nehass languishing in cells indefinitely,” the judge said.
“I would really like to move this on. The time has come. This has gone on too long. I’m not blaming anyone, but the time has come to grab the bull by the horns.”
Nehass could plead guilty to the “bare bones” of the offences – that he committed mischief or uttered threats, for instance – and a Gardiner hearing could be scheduled for the Crown and Nehass to present their own evidence on the charges, Luther said.
These hearings are held when the facts of an offence are in dispute.
Ultimately, Nehass pleaded guilty Thursday to a breach and mischief in June 2013.
He also pleaded guilty to assaulting a correctional officer, uttering threats, and committing mischief in July and August of that year.
The Star isn’t publishing details of the offences heard in court because they are not yet agreed upon by both parties.
Nehass had said he wanted to plead guilty to all of his territorial-court charges – laid during his incarceration at WCC.
However, when Marcoux described the details of an alleged incident this year that resulted in Nehass being charged with uttering threats, he protested, and said he would enter a not-guilty plea.
Things did not happen as the Crown says they happened, he said.
“This is a gong show.”
Nehass also faces two charges in connection with an alleged altercation with guards earlier this year, after he was brought before a judge naked via videofeed from the jail.
Vaze advised Nehass not to enter pleas yet for those charges.
“I would never advise a client to plead guilty on a count where there’s possible abuse of process,” he said.
Nehass’ treatment at WCC, including the lengthy amount of time he’s spent in segregation, will be entered as evidence in court at future hearings, Vaze said. He has requested reports from the jail on the subject.
Nehass, a member of B.C.’s Tahltan First Nation, has said several times in court that he has been inhumanely treated at the jail.
His father filed a complaint with the Yukon Human Rights Commission earlier this year, alleging discrimination and overuse of solitary confinement.
Nehass has said he’s spent two years in the jail’s segregation unit. The Department of Justice denies that.
“I think it’s agreed by everybody that over the course of a three-year period, Mr. Nehass has spent a substantial period of time in a form of separate confinement,” Vaze said in an interview this morning.
The charges that landed Nehass in jail in the first place, back in December 2011, pertain to an alleged incident in Watson Lake, and are before the Yukon Supreme Court.
They have not yet been proven in court.
Nehass said Thursday he intends to take those matters to trial.
He is scheduled to appear in court next Friday to set a date for a Gardiner hearing.
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