Why are there no murder charges against any of the four men arrested for the killing of Aaron Webster?
That’s a question on the mind of many in the gay community and among Webster’s chosen family following the arrest of the final three suspects in the Nov 17, 2001 killing. One friend is even calling for a community demonstration demanding tougher charges.
The latest arrests were “wonderful news” to Gloria LaForge, Webster’s chosen-family mother and neighbour at an East Pender St housing co-op. “But we don’t know why everyone’s charged with manslaughter when there should be a murder charge in there as well.
“There is one there that’s a leader. I get choked.
“What are they going to get from manslaughter? Not much. This ought to be a lesson for young people.”
Xtra West has previously published police reports that Webster was beaten over the head and his lower body with a baseball bat or pool cue.
Ryan Cran, 21, and Danny Rao, 22, were arrested at approximately 7:30 am on Oct 9. A third man, who cannot be named because he was a minor at the time of the murder, was also arrested. All three men are from Burnaby, two are unemployed and all live at home with their parents, say police. All have been charged with manslaughter. The adults face a bail hearing Oct 15 in provincial court, 222 Main St, and could be released.
A fourth man, who was a juvenile at the time of Webster’s murder, has already pleaded guilty to manslaughter and will be sentenced Oct 28 in juvenile court, 800 Hornby St, courtroom 105. He faces a three-year maximum sentence.
Rao also faces additional charges of breaking and entering and committing an indictible offence, which is arson, Oct 3, 2002 in Burnaby. As part of bail conditions on that charge, he was ordered to have no contact with four people, including the second juvenile accused in the Webster killing.
Carol Stevenson, a lesbian friend of Webster, is also upset at the absence of murder charges.
“If you beat someone in the neck with a baseball bat, you’ve got to expect you’ll kill them,” she says.
The Crown “didn’t bump the first juvenile to adult court and they didn’t lay murder charges. And are they going to pursue the hate-crime aspect? Rumour has it that they’re not going to pursue that. That’s disturbing as well. I want answers.”
In Canada, the Crown Prosecutor’s Office, not the police, decides which charges to lay in a case, notes Insp Dave Jones, the West End’s top cop who labelled Webster’s killing a hate-crime at a demonstration Nov 18, 2001.
Police may suggest a charge, but the Crown is fully independent in choosing which to lay, says Jones.
Webster’s straight friend, Lee Ann Nestegard, thinks the charges are “an abomination of justice. I’m getting a lot of phone calls. We were told [police] were building the case so they could get murder.
“I can’t help but feel if it wasn’t a gay man in the trails it would have been different. It just makes me feel sick. We need to gather a bunch of people together to say this is not right. It doesn’t wash.”
Kim Hoath is also surprised at the choice of charges. He was looking forward to seeing the main perpetrator sent to jail for life with the key thrown away.
That would have sent a strong message to others who bash gays, says Hoath, who spearheaded the construction of a memorial bench and shelter to Webster near the site of his killing (see accompanying report).
Crown spokesperson Geoffrey Gaul says it’s not that simple. Crown has weighed the evidence since May against the three men most recently arrested, he says. The Crown looks at the facts of the case relative to what is required to get a conviction within the democratic right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence and the need to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
“I can understand there may be concern or apprehension in the community because there aren’t details disclosed at this stage,” says Gaul. The details of the case will be disclosed in the courtroom throughout the trial.
And while he cannot get drawn into specifics of the case, Gaul will say that, hypothetically speaking, the Crown has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt an intent to kill in a second-degree murder charge.
There’s a lower standard of evidence in manslaughter cases. Manslaughter is often charged in killings where the victim provokes the killer.
Gay lawyer Garth Barriere says the Crown’s charges may be appropriate. The evidence collected in the nearly two years since the murder may be insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any of the four charged men intended to cause Webster’s death.
It’s dangerous to the case for the Crown to lay charges they cannot prove, especially in a killing, where the jury may be skittish about convicting for murder, says Barriere.
“I can understand the outrage” of community members, says Barriere. “I just don’t know if the decision is criticizeable.”
We’ll have a better understanding when the first juvenile to plead guilty to manslaughter is sentenced Oct 28, he says. The finding of facts in the judge’s sentencing could help the community judge the Crown’s most recent charges.
It’s also possible that the community will have to wait until all evidence is introduced at the future three trials.
If the Crown made a mistake in laying charges “we can hold them responsible,” says Barriere.
And he warns that plea bargaining hasn’t started yet. It’s possible that charges against one or more of those just arrested could be reduced to aggravated assault in exchange for their testifying against others.
“It’s taken two years to get this far. The Crown may have to plea bargain with those assholes. One would hope [the Crown] approaches this in a principled way. But they’re human and working in a human system.”
At the Oct 9 press conference, Insp Bob Cooper said that the most recent charges resulted from a tip from “a member of the public that felt like they had to do the right thing.” The tip did not come from a member of the gay community, police said. They would not comment on whether the tip originated with the juvenile being sentenced Oct 28.
Cooper said the night of Webster’s killing police were contacted by witnesses who said three or four people were involved.
Activist Jim Deva told the press conference that he brought a message from the gay community, “the community that Aaron belonged to. We have for the last two years been waiting for this day. Our community has not forgotten.”
The gay community trusted the VPD to solve the killing and bring the killers to justice, he said. “The arrest is the first step in what is likely to be a very long process. Our community will be there to ensure that justice is done. Those who did this dastardly deed must pay fully for it.”
And the streets remain unsafe for gays and lesbians in Vancouver, Deva said in answer to questions from the local media. “Homophobia is still out there. There are still people driving around in cars with clubs targetting gays and lesbians.
“No, the streets are not safe. You only have to look at the debate in Ottawa around gay marriage: bigotry and homophobia are alive and well in Canada. But we’re taking steps to address that.”
Deva said relations between the gay community and police are improving because of the police response to Webster’s murder, but a lot of work remains to be done. And he thanked the detectives involved in the case.
* -with files from Jeremy Hainsworth