Sabastien Roy, the brawny grifter who beat and killed a gay man in his home, will spend at least 25 years in jail before he’s eligible for parole.
Former Vancouver resident Christopher Raynsford was a slight 34-year-old man who was well known at Centretown Pub, an Ottawa gay bar. It was there that he met Roy on Nov 21, 2002. The two walked to Raynsford’s apartment together, shared a pizza and drank a bottle of wine. Then Roy beat, tied up, and continued to beat Raynsford for two hours, ultimately strangling him. His body was not found for almost two weeks.
Raynsford’s death shocked Ottawa’s queer community. He was commemorated with vigils and message boards. A meeting room at the local queer centre, Pink Triangle Services, bears his name.
And now, more than four years after Raynsford’s death, his killer has been convicted of first-degree murder. His conviction carries with it a minimum of 25 years before he’s eligible for parole.
But the successful prosecution of Roy is “atypical,” according to Doug Janoff, author of Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence In Canada. He studied over a hundred murders of queers in Canada for his book. Only eight percent of the 47 convictions he studied were first degree — that’s just four cases.
“Very often, they’ll prosecute first degree, but the jury will convict on second degree or manslaughter, or the prosecutor will plea bargain down to second degree or manslaughter,” he said.
That’s because of a legal defense called provocation. Under Canadian law, provocation describes a sudden insult that causes a person to act “on the sudden” without time to consider his actions. Provocation reduces a murder to manslaughter, which carries a penalty of between three and 12 years. A person convicted of manslaughter is eligible for parole after serving a third of his sentence.
Roy’s lawyers argued and won the right to put the provocation defence to the jury. It’s a distressingly common practice in prosecuting killers of gays, says Janoff. Men argue that the victim came on to them, causing them to fly into a murderous frenzy. In Roy’s case, the defence suggested that Raynsford put his hands on the killer’s shoulders, trying to “force” oral sex on him.
Those who knew Raynsford were sickened by the defence’s closing arguments. On Nov 7, the day before the jury was sequestered, Roy’s lawyer called the beating “not excessive” and “a reasonable reaction” to the suggestion of sex by the victim. His lawyer painted a picture of Raynsford as “sexually aggressive” and “predatory.”
If that seems dastardly, it is. Problem is, it often works. When you put the low conviction rate next to the killer’s most common defence, it’s hard not to think that, if you kill a queer, you’re probably not going to spend the rest of your life in prison.
“A large number the killers blame the killing on the victim’s sexuality and only eight percent get 25 years are more,” Janoff says.
Which may clear up some of the Crown’s puzzling tactics. Members of the queer community were left scratching their heads after Crown attorney Julianne Parfett’s opening statements on Oct 10, in which she claimed that Raynsford was simply a good Samaritan, offering the homeless Roy a couch to crash on for the night. No mention of a hook-up gone bad. No mention of the two meeting at a gay bar. In fact, no mention of ‘gay’ at all.
For the first two weeks of the trial, neither the victim’s nor his killer’s sexuality came up at all. In that time, the Crown called the victim’s mother and a bevy of police officers and analysts. They showed the jury Raynsford’s ransacked apartment, blood spatter on the floor, walls and ceiling of the apartment, and a complex set of bindings around the victim’s arms, feet and neck that tethered him to the wall. The jury was asked to pass around a bloody and dented frying pan and parts of Raynsford’s destroyed dentures.
In other words, the jury learned about the crime before they learned about the victim. The Crown immersed the jury in crime scene photos and a 20-minute autopsy video — plus blood spatter analysis, DNA and forensic pathology — for two full weeks before any prejudice could have been triggered.
“One can only speculate as to their motives,” Janoff says, “But it would seem reasonable to suppose that if they had gone straight into the gay thing there may have been a fear that the jurors would have focussed only on that.”
It was a risk. If the jury felt the Crown was withholding important information, the jury might have punished the Crown. By the end of the trail, the good Samaritan scenario hardly seemed the most plausible, but the jury was obviously able to put that behind them when it came time to decide.
Another challenge faces our community as we seek justice in cases of violence – prejudice.
In Canada, those accused of crimes have a mechanism to protect them from prejudiced jury members. A defence team can request a “cause for challenge,” a way of weeding out potentially biased jurors early in the selection process. Cause for challenge can be conducted for a range of issues, from gang membership to unusual views about animals.
But victims — and crown attorneys — can’t screen for bias in a systematic way, and Roy’s lawyers opted not to screen for homophobia. That meant that the Crown was likely dealing with a mixed bag of views. The Crown’s success depended on its ability to successfully navigate that challenge. It appears to have succeeded — this time.
“I don’t think this represents any trend. It’s just one of the cases we’ve been following,” says Janoff.