An Ontario nurse said that she is “devastated” after being denied the opportunity to attend a parole hearing for the man convicted of murdering her father, and that it’s traumatizing the parole board will hear the case without her amid the new coronavirus pandemic.
Lisa Freeman said she has been preparing mentally for months to fly to British Columbia to deliver a victim impact statement at the day parole hearing for John Terrance Porter, who was convicted of bludgeoning her father, Roland Slingerland, to death with a hatchet in 1991.
Porter was convicted of first-degree murder in 1992 and was handed a life sentence of 25 years with the eligibility of parole.
“I was 21 when my dad was murdered. I identified him in the morgue. For 21 years, I’ve felt like I had very little control of anything,” Freeman told Global News. “I will be devastated not to be there. I feel like there’s an obligation to be there, not just for my dad, but for the rest of my family.”
“That it’s probably very likely continuing without me is damaging and re-traumatizing at an already stressful time.”
Freeman, who works at a long-term care home in Oshawa, Ont., first learned about Porter’s request for day parole from William Head Institution in Victoria, B.C., last November.
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In a letter on March 17, Freeman was notified that the Parole Board of Canada was “cancelling all observer attendance at its hearings until further notice.” The letter arrived just as the federal government and provinces began taking emergency steps to lessen the impact of the deadly pandemic.
The parole board said she could submit her impact statement in writing and apply to receive an audio recording of the hearing once it’s completed.
Freeman requested to attend the hearing remotely via a livestream, which was also denied as parole hearings require “a secure video connection.”
“I’m furious,” Freeman said, adding she wants the hearing postponed until all parties can attend.
The Parole Board of Canada said in a statement that hearings are now being conducted remotely and not in institutions, to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The cancellation of scheduled observers, including victims, at upcoming PBC hearings is a temporary measure that will be reassessed on an ongoing basis,” said spokesperson Holly Knowles in an email. “Victims will continue to receive all legislated information to which they are entitled.”
An offender’s conditional release is legislated under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) and must be reviewed under specific time-frames, according to Knowles.
“There is no mechanism under the law that allows the PBC to unilaterally reschedule an offender’s review for conditional release,” Knowles said. “The PBC regrets any inconvenience this may cause.”
Slingerland, a 58-year-old Canadian navy veteran, was a caretaker at an Oshawa rooming house in 1991 when Porter showed up looking for his girlfriend, according to Freeman.
When Slingerland said he didn’t know where the woman was, Porter returned hours later with a metal bar and a hatchet, ultimately killing the father of three.
“I need to be there to deliver that statement because otherwise it’s just words on paper,” Freeman said.
Hearings impacted across Canada
Provinces across Canada have shut down schools, businesses, public events and even some courthouses in the battle against the deadly virus, which has sickened more 392,000 around the world, including over 2,100 in Canada, as of Tuesday afternoon.
In Ontario, all family and criminal trials before the Ontario Court of Justice have been suspended amid growing concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic unless otherwise ordered by a judge.
Leo Russomanno, a criminal defence lawyer who also teaches at the University of Ottawa’s law school, said Canada’s justice is going to have to rapidly adjust to meet the current challenges presented by the pandemic.
Russomanno said the rights of both the victim and the convicted need to be met, which means using more video appearances and other technology in Canadian courts and jails.
“Courts are an essential service and they are going to have provide access to people who have standing in a proceeding,” Russommano said. “The parole board needs to adjust to new reality and provide those services with technology that is readily available.”
Heidi Illingworth, federal ombudsman for victims of crime, said her office has received “multiple complaints” from victims who have been prevented from attending parole hearings or who are being told not to attend upcoming hearings.
“There’s a number of people who have been affected by this already and it’s going to be very many more,” Illingworth told Global News. “The public health risks and concerns are increasing daily … and are starting to affect some of the federal institutions.
“This situation may get worse and not better.”
Illingworth has raised her objections to victims being barred from hearings with the Parole Board, and Public Safety Canada is working to find a solution. She said there are “massive” technological challenges across the federal government due to COVID-19 and staffing shortages.
“What we are hoping for is allowing people to participate by telephone. … Can we allow them so they can hear the questioning and still read their impact statements?” Illingworth said. “Being present for some victims’ family members and survivors is critically important.”
Porter has been eligible to apply for parole since 2016, but Freeman said she will continue to fight against his release.
“For victims of crime to feel like they are part of the justice system, this is it, this is where it counts,” she said. “For them to take that away , they are essentially removing us from the whole process for justice.”
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