A tearful Mario Skookum addressed a Whitehorse courtroom Friday, expressing remorse for his role in the 2017 stabbing death of Wilfred “Dickie” Charlie, a respected elder from Carmacks, Yukon, and Mario’s cousin.
Mario was trembling as he faced the gallery and said he “can’t even imagine the pain” he’s caused the community, and his and Charlie’s families.
“It’s heartbreaking to hear the void [and] the separation between my relatives who were once so close,” Mario said.
He added that he did not mean to cause Charlie any harm when he and his cousin, Tyler Skookum, went to Charlie’s house looking for alcohol.
Mario said he plans to remain sober and make amends for what he did.
“I wish to do my best to help heal and honour my community,” he said.
The man’s mother called out to him as he was led from the courtroom. Justice Edith Campbell denied her request to address the court but gave her permission to speak to her son. The two shared a long hug, and she said “I love you” as he was taken away.
Campbell will meet with Crown and defence lawyers Aug. 4 to set a date to hand down a sentence in the case.
A cultural loss for the community
According to victim impact statements read into the court record Thursday, Charlie was a funny, popular elder who provided for his community and was a keeper of traditional knowledge.
Charlie lived off the land in the Northern Tutchone style and spoke the traditional language, said his sister Vera Charlie in a victim impact statement read in court.
He was an experienced hunter, trapper, fisher, and dog team runner, she said.
“It is extremely sad to say the dog mushing skills in my family [have] stopped because my brother was taken from me,” Vera Charlie said.
Her brother always provided meat and fish, Vera said, adding that she struggles without his support.
“My freezer is empty,” she said.
Other family members said they fear for their safety if Mario returns to Carmacks. Other members of Charlie’s family provided victim impact statements but did not want them read in court.
Campbell said she would take the statements into consideration during sentencing.
Charlie’s body was found in June 2017 near the confluence of the Pelly and Yukon rivers following a weeks-long search.
In April, Mario’s cousin, Tyler, also pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the case. Both cousins had previously been charged with first-degree murder for their joint role in Charlie’s death.
The killing “effectively placed the community as a whole in victim status,” said a community impact statement that was also read in court.
Many of the people who were asked to contribute to the statement did not want to speak about the case, the document said. Some feared reprisals and felt pressure not to speak out.
There is much division in the community, and Charlie’s death was also a huge cultural loss, the statement said.
The community impact statement, as well as most of the victim impact statements, will be sealed by court order.
Crown lawyer Lauren Whyte said she’s seeking a five-year sentence for Mario, who would receive two and a half years of credit for time served.
She said Mario poses a “moderate” risk to reoffend based on a history of violent offences and substance abuse.
“This is not Mr. Skookum’s first violent offence,” said Whyte. “The sentence needs to deter Mr. Skookum from falling in again with substances and a negative peer group.”
But, Whyte said, Mario has shown remorse and undergone counselling.
Defence lawyer Bibhas Vaze says Mario did not intend to harm Charlie. Vaze argued Mario should be sentenced to one year, which would mean he would be immediately released because of time he has already served.
Vaze argued Mario should get a reduction in his sentence because the Crown was slow to disclose statements from two of Mario’s relatives to the defence. Vaze said that is a major breach of Mario’s charter rights.
“The Crown has to do better, and the court has to tell the Crown to do better,” Vaze said.
The content of the statements is covered by a publication ban because they relate to other cases.
Crown lawyer Tom Lemon said “there is absolutely no evidence” the Crown intentionally withheld evidence in disclosure. He said the Crown immediately acknowledged the breach and supplied the defence with the information.
Lemon said the breach of Skookum’s Charter rights should be worth a maximum of two months of his sentence.
Vaze also entered as evidence a letter of support from social service agencies that are willing to give Mario a place to stay and to provide him with substance abuse counselling.
The defence also entered examples of Skookum’s artwork and writing, saying Skookum is committed to pursuing art and music upon his release.
Whyte objected to the inclusion of the examples. She said including artwork as evidence is “highly unusual.”
Campbell ruled that including such works is no different than allowing certificates from training programs to be entered as evidence.