Meth-impaired driver’s lawyer makes case for jail sentence in fatal hit-and-run
WINNIPEG -- A defence lawyer for the Calgary, Alta. man, who was high on methamphetamine and driving a stolen vehicle when he hit and killed a 15-year-old and hurt his friend, asked a judge to consider a total sentence of four-and-a-half years for his client.
Evan Roitenberg told Judge Sidney Lerner that punishment — which he calculated could be achieved through time served and a further sentence of two years less a day — would keep Justin Joseph Little out of a penitentiary and allow him to continue serving jail time at Headingley Correctional Centre, where he could stay in the Winding River addictions treatment program.
“Bettering him is a better result,” Roitenberg told court. “You still have to punish him but it’s the forum in which he’s punished and allowed to do his time that will assist in dictating what the outcoming product is.”
Little, now 30, pleaded guilty this past November to impaired driving causing death, impaired driving causing bodily harm and two counts of leaving the scene of an accident.
On the night of Aug. 10, 2018, he veered off Highway 9 in a stolen vehicle with a toxic level of meth in his blood and hit two teens riding bicycles. Ben Harris, 15, was killed. Harris’s friend was hurt.
The Crown argued for a 7-year sentence, describing Little’s actions the night of the collision as “morally despicable.” Court heard he took off from the scene, hid in a parked vehicle in a nearby yard, and chuckled during a portion of a police interview 13 hours after the collision.
Roitenberg argued Little shouldn’t be judged on his interactions with officers because he was high on meth.
“When someone’s in the middle of a meth binge, they’re not a reliable source for anything,” Roitenberg told court.
Defence urges judge to take into account Little’s addiction and difficult upbringing
Roitenberg asked Lerner to consider Little was living with a methamphetamine addiction at the time of the collision, which he said needs to be recognized as a disease and not an aggravating factor in the offences committed.
“Addiction to certain substances has long been considered a disease,” Roitenberg told court. “Social science says it’s a disease, this court says it’s a disease, society recognizes it’s a disease – except when it’s not convenient to do so.”
Roitenberg told the judge underlying social issues in Little’s upbringing brought him to a point in his life where he had become addicted to meth and other substances.
“It was, as you can imagine your honour, far from an ideal childhood and adolescence.”
Court heard Little was born in Nova Scotia to a 15-year-old mom into a childhood of poverty, neglect and was sexually abused by a babysitter when he was two.
His family later moved to Alberta where he went into foster care around age 12 because his mom, who was a single parent at the time, was living with substance abuse issues.
Little and his sister were removed from their home and Little ended up facing further abuse in foster care, Roitenberg told court.
He lived with his father for a period of time but felt unwanted by his father’s partner and went back into foster care.
Court heard he ran away from group homes because of physical abuse and became addicted to drugs, including methamphetamine.
“His young life was spiralling out of control due to factors that weren’t of his making,” Roitenberg told Lerner.
Court heard Little got clean after meeting a partner of his own and having a child but when that relationship spiralled out of control he relapsed and ended up in Winnipeg living on the streets working odd jobs to fuel his meth addiction.
“When he earned some money, he’d go spend it on meth,” Roitenberg told the judge.
On the day of the collision, Little had been using meth and awake for days when he decided to go back to Calgary for an opportunity to reconnect with his family. He stole a vehicle, partially repainted it and ended up hitting Harris and his friend.
“To get to Calgary he headed up north on Highway 9,” Roitenberg told court. “This is where his head was at."
“His focus was trying to get back to see his son.”
Roitenberg argued Little took responsibility for the crime following the disclosure of DNA evidence and has shown genuine remorse for his actions.
"I recall the moment we were able to share the results of that DNA disclosure,” Roitenberg told court. “Instantly he started to cry. Instantly, he said, 'If I did this, I’m taking responsibility for it.'"
Defence submission difficult for family
Friends and family of Harris sat through the defence submission and could be heard at times expressing discontent with Roitenberg’s arguments, prompting two warnings from the judge who asked people sitting in the gallery to let the defence make its submission without interruption.
Members of Harris’s immediate family also left the courtroom when Little got up to address the judge.
“I do realize nobody really wants to hear me speak right now,” Little told court. “But one thing I will say is that I truly am very, very sorry for what has happened and I don’t think I can say much more than that right now.”
Outside court, Harris’s parents John and Brenda explained why they left before hearing Little speak.
“We felt that was self-serving,” said John Harris. “We thought that was just an attempt to show the judge that he had remorse where we didn’t think that was the case. We found it unbelievable.”
The Harris’s said sitting through the defence arguments was difficult.
“We listened to how the accused had a hard life, a difficult childhood,” said John Harris. “But I can tell you half the people in the courtroom have had lives that are just as hard, and now our lives are harder than that. That really didn’t get a lot of sympathy from us.”
The Harris’s still have concerns about why just 12 days before the collision Little, who was wanted on two outstanding warrants for charges in Calgary and Edmonton from 2016, had been released on bail in Manitoba following unrelated charges of mischief and theft of a motor vehicle from June and July of 2018.
“We are disappointed,” said John. “We would’ve hoped by this time somebody would’ve taken the time to actually explain that to us and that hasn’t been explained to us. Our questions haven’t been answered.”
The Harris’s said they hope the sentence, at the very least, is what the Crown has asked for but they understand that may not happen.
No date for a decision has been set but Lerner told court he expects to be ready to deliver one in about three weeks.