Vancouver’s queer community recoiled in anger Feb 8 after Ryan Cran was sentenced to six years in jail for his part in the beating death of Aaron Webster more than three years ago.
But it wasn’t just the fact that Cran, 23, received the low end of the six-to-nine year sentencing range requested by the Crown that repulsed the gays and lesbians in the gallery.
In his sentencing submissions two weeks earlier, Crown counsel Greg Weber shied away from presenting evidence that Cran’s actions were hate motivated. On Feb 8, BC Supreme Court Justice Mary Humphries said she could not call it a hate crime, either.
In explaining her ruling, Humphries said she didn’t hear any evidence at trial to prove it was a hate crime, nor did she hear any evidence suggesting Cran knowingly targeted a gay man. The Crown didn’t even mention that Webster was gay at trial, she pointed out.
“I am aware that the death of Aaron Webster has had a significant effect on the gay community,” she noted, “however there was no evidence before the court of Mr Webster’s sexual orientation.”
Cran was one of four people charged in the killing of Webster, 41, who was beaten with a golf club, pool cues and baseball bats on Nov 17, 2001 at Second Beach in Stanley Park.
Witnesses told Humphries that the group had gone to the park to beat up “peeping toms and voyeurs” and came across Webster naked except for his shoes. They chased him across the parking lot, striking him as he ran, then surrounded him at his car and beat him until he fell to the ground, then beat him some more, the court heard at trial.
“What is so chilling about this case is that this group seems to have done this for some reprehensible and almost inconceivable concept of entertainment,” Humphries ruled.
She called the attack random, cowardly and terrifying.
“He must pay for this crime,” she added.
Humphries’ ruling veered away from an earlier ruling in a related case by Judge Valmond Romilly.
Romilly sentenced the first youth convicted of Webster’s manslaughter in December 2003. In his ruling, Romilly called the killing a hate crime. “I fail to see why this cannot be described as a gaybashing,” he ruled, rejecting the youth’s stated claim that his actions were not motivated by a hatred of gays.
It’s hard to believe, Romilly continued, that the youth could be “so naïve that [he] did not notice this area was frequented by gays.”
Romilly also ruled that hatred of peeping toms and voyeurs counts as a form of hate motivation, as well.
The Crown had not sought a hate crime designation in the youth’s case, either. But that didn’t stop Romilly.
Nor should Weber’s omission have stopped Humphries this time, many members of the gay community said after last week’s decision.
“If ever there were a case that cried out for a hate crime designation, this is the case,” said former MP Svend Robinson, standing outside the courtroom.
“Val Romilly got it,” Robinson continued. “Judge Romilly understands. [He] understood the intention of Parliament.
Granted, the information that the area where Webster was killed was a gay cruising area was not put before the court, Robinson conceded. But the court heard that the group had been to the area at least three times.
The killers had to have known it was a cruising area, he maintained. “If they didn’t figure it out the first time, they sure as heck knew by the time they went back and beat Aaron Webster to death.”
But, he noted, “this trial didn’t reflect that in any way.”
Not once were any of the killers asked at trial if they knew it was a cruising area, he noted.
“The Crown was absolutely silent on that issue and I think that silence was shameful,” Robinson said. The Crown clearly has not begun to understand the gravity of the hate crime legislation and its application.
“Aaron Webster was targeted because he was a gay man in a gay cruising area,” Robinson reiterated. “Who can speculate as to the motives of the Crown?”
Robinson renewed his call to BC’s Attorney General Geoff Plant to investigate the prosecution of this case. He called on Plant “to do what he should have done a long time ago and make it clear to every Crown counsel in the province of British Columbia that hate crimes laws passed by Parliament must be respected.”
Robinson, Canada’s first openly gay member of Parliament, left the courtroom feeling angry, Feb 8. And he wasn’t just angry about the lack of hate crime designation. The length of Cran’s sentence left him fuming, as well.
“Six years for the brutal slaying and gaybashing of Aaron Webster is an outrage,” he says.
“What message does that send to the people of this country about the value of the lives of gay people? And what message does that send to the thugs who would go out and target gay people?”
This attack sent “a chill, a sense of fear over a community-the gay community,” Robinson continued. “The sentence today did not reflect that.”
Other members of the gay community who attended the sentencing left outraged, as well. They, too, could not accept the lack of hate crime designation.
“It had everything to do with the fact he was gay and I hope that his six years are absolute hell in jail for what he’s done,” said Harry O’Hayon.
“To think of the way this man died, what his last moments must have been like. It’s absolutely atrocious and this is a farce.
“To say that this wasn’t a hate crime was an absolute travesty,” O’Hayon added.
Webster’s family was also angered by the sentence.
“I’m terribly, terribly saddened by the six-year term and more saddened by the fact that gay people today are no safer than at the time of my brother’s death,” said Pamela Miller. “I believe these guys were out to kill a gay man,” Miller added.
She, too, called on politicians and members of the legal community to learn about the law.
“This is their job to ensure our safety,” she says. “The hate crime legislation is there. Why are these people so cowardly to apply it?” she asked. “I’m actually ashamed of them, quite simply.
“Did my brother die in vain? I think so.”
Webster’s last words to his attackers were: “That’s enough, guys.” His cousin, Fred Norman echoed those words after hearing the sentence and the court’s failure to apply the hate crimes legislation.
“That’s enough. This is ridiculous,” Norman said. “This was a hate crime.”
Just because the Crown did not do its job, doesn’t mean the judge couldn’t show a little courage and call it a hate crime, he said.