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Friday, June 23, 2000

Itchy trigger fingers
Christie Blatchford
National Post

It was the California band Creedence Clearwater Revival which saw a bad moon rising. I just see a bad law.

New Democrat Frances Lankin has already demanded "no second chances" for "violent offenders." Ontario Premier Mike Harris is already vowing to toughen sentencing, find tougher judges, or seek tougher penalties for breached restraining orders. Mr. Harris's attorney-general, Jim Flaherty, is already offering his usual hearty support for "custodial sentences for serious violent crime."

They were all referring to the terrible domestic tragedy that occurred at a Pickering house three days ago, when a 34-year-old Toronto postal worker named Ralph Hadley, armed with a gun, entered his former home through a backyard window, grabbed his estranged wife Gillian (naked, apparently fresh from the bathtub), engaged in a struggle which saw Mrs. Hadley flee to the front door and hand their baby son Christopher Chase off to a neighbour, then shot her and killed himself.

The difficulty with the politicians' collective remarks and apparent intent to rewrite legislation is that Mr. Hadley was not a violent offender. He wasn't even an offender. He had no criminal record, no convictions for anything, let alone violence.

He was an accused. He was a man, in the throes of a nasty separation from his wife, who was only charged with serious offences -- one count of assault and one of criminal harassment, which is better known as stalking, and both of them dating back to the months immediately after the couple had separated.

It's impolitic to say so, but let's be honest here: When marriages break down, especially in the early going, sometimes women behave badly too, and use bogus criminal charges, or the threat of them, as a bludgeon to achieve what they want from a settlement. Absent evidence to the contrary -- evidence which accuseds like Mr. Hadley must offer at a procedure called a show-cause hearing, where the onus is on them to literally show cause why they shouldn't be jailed -- the judicial system has no way of separating the wheat from the chaff.

And, at his show-cause hearing on Feb. 28, over the request of a Crown attorney that he be held in custody, Mr. Hadley was able to convince a female justice of the peace that he should be released. Court documents show that his parents acted as his surety (to the tune of $5,000); it's likely one or another of them also testified on his behalf.

This release came with strict conditions: that he stay away from his estranged wife, as well as some of her friends and neighbours and her new boyfriend; that he not enter the city of Pickering except while passing though on a highway en route to his lawyer's office; that he not be allowed to use the phone at the postal plant where he worked, and that he live with his parents in Scarborough. And, oh yes, that he not possess a gun or other weapon.

Now in Mr. Hadley's case, clearly, there was truth to the core of the allegations -- and he proved it -- but until that awful moment on Tuesday, he was entitled to the presumption of innocence, as are all those other men who are now also accused (but not convicted) persons before the courts across Canada.

To use Ms. Lankin's phrase, he was entitled to a second chance, as are they all.

The justice system is already somewhat tilted against the accused in a spousal assault, the usual order of things reversed -- instead of the prosecutor having the burden of showing why the accused should not get bail, in domestic violence cases, it's the accused who must demonstrate why he should. Prosecutors and police have, over the years and as a result of other similar tragedies, lost virtually any discretion they once had to close investigative files or drop charges. The collective message to them is clear: Domestic violence is to be taken very seriously.

And it was.

Did the Durham Regional Police miss a step here? Not at all. They laid the appropriate charges. And from the time Mr. Hadley was released in February, until three days ago, the police had no record of further complaints about him.

Did the two justices of the peace who released Mr. Hadley, the first time on a peace bond in connection with the alleged assault, the second time on the criminal harassment charge, screw up? It doesn't appear so.

Mr. Hadley came before them, remember, as a man with no record, who was gainfully employed, who had obvious family support and who invariably showed up for his court appearances, as the records show, except where his lawyer had arranged with the court for him to be absent.

Where is the rationale for changing the laws, for the holus-bolus keeping of an entire category of accused men in jail until trial? The average length of time it takes to get to trial in the Region of Durham is nine months: Had Mr. Hadley been held in custody, and found guilty, he would almost certainly have been released on time already served.

And what if he had been acquitted? The politicians now crying for harsh laws and more people in jail would have been standing up in the legislature and ruing not merely wrongful conviction, but wrongful detention.

Until December of last year, when he was accused of criminal negligence causing bodily harm -- this in relation to an allegation he had caused bruising "on the buttocks" of Mrs. Hadley's young disabled son from a previous marriage -- Ralph Hadley had never been in trouble with the law.

That charge, by the by, ended up being withdrawn by the Crown attorney and settled with a $500 bond requiring Mr. Hadley to keep the peace.

Mrs. Hadley, the National Post has learned, was at the time unhappy with this, but not apparently because she believed her husband guilty, but rather because she wanted him to have a trial so he could demonstrate his innocence.

It was not much later, early in the new year, apparently after he caught his wife in the arms of another man, that Mr. Hadley allegedly assaulted her and the downward spiral began. Still, he appeared to be coping, wasn't about to explode. Even the to-do list he made, and which was revealed yesterday by police along with a lengthy suicide note, has a pathetic quality to it, sounds like a man who was steeling himself to do the unthinkable and had to do it every single step of the way.

"Call a cab," reads Mr. Hadley's first instruction to himself.

No one would, could, defend what he did. But was it predictable, preventable? The nature of tragedies is often that they aren't preventable, which is why they're tragic. The modern collective need to find someone, anyone, to blame for not stopping what happened is dishonest: You can protect all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't protect all of the people all of time.

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