Winston Blackmore (left) and James Oler (right) were sentenced on separate charges of polygamy this week in Cranbrook Supreme Court.

ANALYSIS: Questions remain following polygamy sentencing

The first polygamy prosecution in over 100 years ended in Cranbrook Supreme Court this week

Nearly four years ago, polygamy charges were announced by the B.C. Prosecution Service against two fundamentalist religious leaders associated with Bountiful.

After being tried and found guilty, Winston Blackmore and James Oler were sentenced to six months and three months, respectively, to house arrest.

Whether the punishment is appropriate for the crime is up for debate — Blackmore’s defence lawyer Blair Suffredine joked in a press scrum after the sentencing ruling that, “I’ve long said that if you have 25 wives, it’s hard to conceive of a bigger punishment…”

READ: BC polygamous leaders sentenced to house arrest

However, the challenges in getting to a successful polygamy prosecution date back almost 30 years.

And that’s the rub — that after 27 years of police investigations and litigation in the courts, the punishment delivered by Justice Sheri Donegan consists of being confined to a residence 24/7 except to go to work. Or grocery shop. Or to a medical facility in case of an emergency.

The sentencing ruling has caused a furor of reaction in local social media circles, and it’s easy to understand why. During the trial, it was revealed that Blackmore and Oler married underage girls, some as young as 15 years old.

So why, after 27 years, is the punishment only six months of house arrest?

That’s not an easy question to answer and there are many layers to parse through in understanding how the proceedings got to the eventual outcome.

The members of the community were first investigated in the early 1990s, however, charges were never approved by the crown at the time because authorities believed a prosecution would fail based on the constitutional vagueness of the polygamy laws.

It took 20 years for that to change.

At the time, authorities relied on legal opinions rather than testing a prosecution in court, which would establish a case law precedent regardless of the outcome.

Instead, Richard Peck, a special prosecutor appointed by the government in 2007 to examine the polygamy allegations in Bountiful, declined to pursue charges, but recommended a constitutional reference be brought before the courts to settle the vagueness of the polygamy laws.

Four years later, that process ended, with Justice Robert Bauman concluding that the positive effects of the Section 293 — the polygamy prohibition — outweigh the negative effects on the infringement to freedom of religion and freedom of association.

Armed with that ruling, the provincial government appointed Special Prosecutor Peter Wilson in 2012, who approved polygamy charges two years later.

READ: Special Prosecutor approves polygamy charges

However, in between Peck’s recommendation to pursue a constitutional reference case and the eventual ruling, there were additional actions from the provincial government that complicated the issue.

Leonard Doust was retained to examine Peck’s conclusions into the Bountiful investigations, but Doust agreed with Peck’s assessment.

The situation changed when former Attorney General Wally Oppal appointed Terry Robertson in 2008, who approved polygamy charges, however, they were thrown out of court by Justice Stromberg-Stein a year later, who also quashed Robertson’s appointment based on allegations of ‘special prosecutor shopping’.

Tuesday’s sentencing in Cranbrook Supreme Court is the culmination of the uncertainty over a polygamy prosecution that has existed for nearly three decades.

All that for a six- and three-month sentence of house arrest.

But how does the court arrive at that punishment, given that the Canadian Criminal Code specifies a maximum five-year sentence?

Under the Code, sentencing aspects include principles such as deterrence, denunciation and separation of offenders. To come to a sentencing decision, judges rely on precedent — what sentences were imposed for similar offenders who committed similar crimes in similar circumstances.

In this case, there was no modern precedent to guide Justice Donegan.

Donegan told the court that the convictions and sentencing will send a denunciatory message to anyone practicing polygamy and serve as a deterrent in and of itself.

Whether that’s the case remains to be seen.

When Wilson was appointed in as special prosecutor in 2012, his mandate also included investigating allegations of sexual interference, sexual assault, invitation to sexual touching and other related crimes allegedly relating to fundamentalist Mormons in Bountiful. It was amended two weeks later to include polygamy — the charge which was eventually approved, but not the first set of allegations.

Why that was the case is unknown, but, as always, the burden is on the Crown to prove a person charged with an crime is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

It remains unclear as to what happens now, specifically in Blackmore’s case.

Polygamy, or plural marriage, is a central tenet of the fundamentalist Mormon faith and Blackmore has long remained adamant that he was not going to deny his faith throughout the trial process.

What, if anything, prevents him from returning to Bountiful and continuing to maintain his polygamous relationships?

In Oler’s case, he has been ostracized from the community and lives in another province by himself in near isolation.

But given the conclusion of these proceedings, it’s still worthy to ask whether the whole process, from charge approval to conviction and sentencing, has sent an appropriate message?

And which message has it sent — one of denunciation or leniency?

Just Posted

Kelowna house fire deemed not suspicious

Fire crews doused overnight blaze at Barnaby Road home

Pot shop to open doors Saturday in Lake Country

Starbuds will be one of B.C.’s largest private cannabis stores

A pickleball debacle unfolds in Lake Country

Pickleball players and frustrated residents discuss the sport court

Backyard fundraiser raises over $40,000 for Foundry Kelowna, CMHA

‘The message was really about treating mental health like any other illness’

Kelowna man found guilty of second-degree murder awaits sentencing

A Kelowna jury found Steven Randy Pirko guilty of the second-degree murder in June

3 dead, 2 missing in northern B.C: Here’s what we know so far

Lucas Fowler, 23, and his girlfriend, Chynna Deese, were shot and killed on July 14 or 15

Tubing world record broken on Vancouver Island

But record for length of tubes linked together still has to be confirmed

UPDATE: Culprit leaves clue for Okanagan RCMP in rainbow crosswalk vandalism

Crosswalk was defaced on the weekend, but RCMP may have some evidence

The Beaverton’s sharp satire thrives in polarized political climate

Canadian TV series’ third season to air Tuesday on CTV after “The Amazing Race Canada”

VIDEO: Young couple found dead in northern B.C. had been shot, police say

Chynna Noelle Deese of the U.S. and Lucas Robertson Fowler of Australia were found along Highway 97

VIDEO: Man found dead near B.C. teens’ truck could be linked to a double homicide

RCMP said they are looking for Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, of Port Alberni

Family of missing B.C. senior with dementia frustrated with situation, heartened by community support

Nine days since Grace was last seen the question remains: ‘How can an 86-year-old just disappear?’

Fast-paced South Okanagan fundraiser guaranteed to thrill

Area 27 motorsports club members are offering the ride of a lifetime in support of OSNS

RCMP track down vehicle used in South Okanagan hit and run

Penticton RCMP are asking for any witnesses to a hit and run incident to come forward

Most Read