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Tuesday, March 07, 2000

Justice system comes down to dumb luck
George Jonas
National Post

With due respect to the lawyer Clayton Ruby, I can't get too exercised by the severity of the sentence Joe Pietrangelo received last week for clubbing Wayne Thomson, the Niagara Falls mayor, about 40 times with a metal cane. Pietrangelo may be a man of 55 with no criminal record, as Ruby described him, but 40 whacks can get you into criminal folklore, as they did Lizzie Borden in the popular rhyme: "Lizzie Borden with an ax / Gave her father 40 whacks."

True, legendary Lizzie was acquitted even though her father met his Maker, while Pietrangelo was sent to prison for 25 years even though his victim survived. But that's just the way the cookie crumbles, in the judicial system no less than in other walks of life. For an accused, especially, it helps to be innocent or well-lawyered, but it's better to be lucky.

Pietrangelo certainly can't be described as lucky, considering what others have got away with in this country. Mind you, a sentence of 25 years is easily available in law for attempted murder, the crime of which a Welland jury convicted Pietrangelo, and I wouldn't lead a protest outside Justice Nick Borkovich's chambers for imposing it. But it's also true that criminals have received less for more. Sometimes such disparities seem justified by circumstances; but, at other times, they appear to depend solely on the vagaries of fortune or fashion.

For instance, when the late Jane Stafford received no jail time after being convicted of manslaughter for using a shotgun to blow away her sleeping husband, in some quarters the outrage wasn't over the lightness of Stafford's sentence, but over the fact an abused wife should be found criminally responsible at all.

Perpetrators ought to remember the old maxim about assailants having to take their victims as they find them. Originally, this may have meant only that an assailant was out of luck if a victim had a thin skull and died as a result of a light blow that wouldn't have seriously hurt another person. But later it also came to mean that the assailant was in or out of luck, as the case may be, if he/she or his/her victim happened to be members of a socio-politically protected species.

When assaulting a mayor, for instance, one should keep in mind that one can't fight city hall. Forgetting it could result in Ron Brooks, the assistant Crown attorney, comparing one's assault, as he reportedly did Pietrangelo's 40 whacks, to an assassination attempt on a world leader.

Much as I abhor people whacking the Chief Magistrate of Niagara Falls, unlike Mr. Brooks, I feel it falls somewhat short of "an assault on the fabric of our Canadian society." In fact, it may not even be as bad as the recent carjacking and beating of Bay Street lawyer Schuyler "Skippy" Sigel and his wife, Lynn, for which perpetrators Lawrence DaSilva and Troy Metropolit received 18 and 16 years, respectively.

What does all this prove? Only that courts are as rhapsodic as the rest of us. Maybe that's what makes them so reassuringly familiar.

Mind you, Pietrangelo wasn't totally bereft of luck. Instead of Thomson, he could have run into an athletic and agile mayor. If so, he might have suffered the same fate as the ill-starred youngster who tried to assault an old friend of mine in Toronto's Yorkville district. The hapless assailant had no way of knowing that his intended victim, who by then was in his mid-60s, had been known as "The Baron" in his days as a champion wrestler in Australia. Those who saw them halfway through their brief encounter said the young man looked as if he'd settle for 25 years in jail.

I could easily see Pietrangelo receiving 10 years less before another judge on another day for the same offence. I wouldn't protest against that either. It's the luck of the draw, and, as such, perhaps the principal way in which the justice system resembles the rest of the human condition. Such disparities will persist until courts are replaced by computers, which (trust me) will bring its own set of problems.

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