UPDATE: Prosecution, defence spar over sentencing for B.C. polygamist leader

Peter Wilson recommends up to six months for Blackmore and up to 90 days for Oler

Special prosecutor Peter Wilson is recommending 90 days to 6 months in jail for polygamist Winston Blackmore and one month to 90 days in jail for his co-accused James Marion Oler.

In a packed B.C. Supreme Court in Cranbrook, Wilson acknowledged the difficulty for Justice Sheri Donegan to make a sentencing ruling, given that there’s not much legal or historical precent for a criminal polygamy prosecution.

“The appropriate range of sentence I expect would be quite broad in general terms, for polygamy and I suppose it could range from a suspended sentence to a reasonably lengthily term of imprisonment,” said Wilson. “But the Crown’s submission here is that, in this particular instance, we’re dealing with first offenders involved in multiple marriages including with some, what I will call, underage women, the range I say is from one to six months imprisonment.”

The Canadian Criminal Code identifies a maximum five-year prison term for a polygamy offence.

Blackmore and Oler were found guilty of practicing polygamy last summer but Justice Sheri Donegan had held off on sentencing the pair until a constitutional challenge had been argued.

In response, Blackmore’s defence counsel Blair Suffredine asked for a range of sentencing remedies, including a conditional sentence or an absolute discharge.

Wilson had argued that the fact that Blackmore continued his polygamous relationships after a landmark ruling in 2011 cemented the constitutionality of a polygamy prosecution constituted an aggravating factor.

Suffredine responded that Blackmore was put in a difficult spot with his wives and children after that ruling came down.

“Here’s the dilemma that Mr. Blackmore faces,” Suffredine said. “Over the years, he’s entered into a number of relationships and my friend [Wilson] is critical that he’s continuing in those relationships and saying that is a polygamous lifestyle.

“What is he to do? He has relationships with some children. Is he to walk away from those? Is he to abandon those people and not look after them?”

Suffredine said a conditional discharge would allow Blackmore to eventually travel to the U.S. to visit three of his wives, while some of his children are constantly going back and forth across the Canada/US border.

The ongoing legal battle, spanning 27 years, has nearly bankrupted Blackmore, Suffredine says, who runs a sawmill operation with nine employees in Kitchner.

Joe Doyle, a friend of the court on hand to ensure a fair trial, said there is no minimum sentence requirement for polygamy and that a discharge is within the range of sentencing options.

He argued that the vagueness of the constitutionality on criminal polygamy gave Oler the sense that he could have polygamous relationships without fear of prosecution.

“There can be no question of the constitutional status of the legislation has been in doubt for many years, including for the full term of the period covered by the indictment,” Doyle said.

Before the lawyers began their sentencing arguments, Kettle testified that he had been living in the Creston area for 30 years and had many interactions with both Blackmore and Oler, particularly with their school.

When the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints president and prophet, Rulon Jeffs, passed away, that set off a division within the community as it split — half to follow Blackmore and half to follow Rulon’s son, Warren Jeffs.

Kettle testified that Blackmore’s leadership was less ‘draconian’ than that of Jeffs.

“My understanding of what happened was that when Winston became, for no better term, the elder in the Bountiful community, he actually opened up a lot of the areas for the young ladies to go back to school and to get a Grade 10 education like the boys and, to a certain extent, liberalize some of the things they were doing,” Kettle said.

“[He] allowed the boys to work outside of the community, to work for other folks so they could see what it was like outside their community and make a choice.”

The matter will return to court on Friday as lawyers will make submissions regarding media requests to see some of the exhibits submitted during the hearing.

Donegan said she wishes to deliver her sentencing ruling no later than six weeks from today.

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