Thursday, May 10, 2007

"Mr. Black" gets ten

Before Dennis Knibbs was sentenced for second degree murder this morning, his lawyer Glen Orris told the judge that he had been involved in such events as Black History Month and had been named "Mr. Black" as an "award in 2004 in Vancouver". Later in the morning, Judge Arne Silverman told the packed courtroom that Knibbs' past involvement "in a positive way with the Black community and Black community activities" was being taken into account in the sentencing.

Knibbs sat in the glass prisoner's box wearing a bright red, long sleeved t-shirt, his head slightly bowed, He did not seem to notice when Orris got his age wrong, telling the judge he was 41 instead of 31 years old. And he did not turn to look when his supporters streamed in a little late, or when one of his male supporters verbally harassed the victim's mother.

Knibbs has family support

Orris told the judge that Dennis Knibbs had been born in Montreal to parents originally from Jamaica. Knibbs' mother and father are separated but his mother remains in Montreal, along with other members of his immediate family, "all gainfully employed". "His mother was here at the start of the trial," Orris added, but she had to return to her job in Montreal. While out on bail awaiting his murder trial, Knibbs worked in a cousin's restaurant on Commercial Drive. Judge Silverman would later mention that Knibbs had "good family support".

Knibbs has two sons from a previous relationship -- one was mentioned as being eight years old -- whom he "sees regularly" and helps support "when he can."

Knibbs, the judge would later add, "left school" after grade 11.

Knibbs' criminal record before murder: the bad and the good

Before sentencing, the judge reviewed Knibbs' criminal record, a record he noted the jury had not been aware of when recommending that he serve the minimum of 10 years before being eligible to apply for parole. Knibbs' record conveyed messages, both good and bad. Knibbs had a "minor" conviction in 1995 for possession of a narcotic and received a $75 fine. Knibbs had three convictions for "trafficking in a narcotic" in 1996 and was "sentenced to 28 months for each of those three to be served at the same time." Knibbs' latest offense of murder had occurred in a drug trafficking context. Bad. Between 1996 and his arrest for murder in 2005, Knibbs had no convictions. He had, the judge said, "been free and clear" for almost a decade. Good.

Harassing the victim's mother

Like Knibbs, Trumaine Abraham "Ekoh" Nabib, also has family. His mother Lanre Aba Nabib, a slim, youthful -- her son was 21 yrs. old when he was shot two years ago -- Black woman, with very short curly hair, showed up for the sentencing. On this sunny but nippy spring day in Vancouver, she wore a soft, wool, beige and black sweater, an off-white skirt, and a long light green blazer. She sat quietly in the front row.

But one of Knibbs's supporters would soon get to her. He was a tall, twenty-something Mulatto man, who had filed in late with a group of young people and sat behind her. He wore a new black t-shirt with a large red heart depicted on the back, a heart with 8 small round holes in it and long drips of what looked like blood coming from it, and a small crack breaking it apart from the top. After sitting down, the man seemed to recognize the victim's mother. From his seat behind and two seats to the left of her, he gazed at her for a prolonged period; it was not a hostile gaze. But he reacted with disdain when the judge turned to a Victim's Impact Statement she had submitted on behalf of herself and her other children.

The young man reacted instantly as the judge noted that in the Statement in front of him, Habib's mother was "speaking in a positive way" about her son, noting that he had entered the world of drugs "only recently". The young man looked her way and began making remarks, making it difficult for people in the vicinity to hear the judge reading the Victim's Impact Statement. The victim's mother turned around and responded to the young man. He shot back, and the two exchanged comments for a few seconds, in low but unfriendly tones. Finally, Lanre Habib said, in a low, terse tone, "Shut up", and turned back around. He did shut up. But by that time the Statement was over. The sheriffs hadn't noticed. Knibbs hadn't noticed.

Neither the victim's mother or Knibbs' supporters are prone to such exchanges in court. Lanre Habib has sat quietly during previous appearances in court. (She introduced herself to me, the blogger, during a court break and was polite, saying that she was pleased to have met me. She has never attempted to influence coverage of the case.) Knibbs' supporters are young and sometimes whisper too much when court is in session, but they haven't come looking for trouble. One of Knibbs' male friends with long corn rows was clearly angry in the minutes after the verdict last Saturday, but waited until he got into the hallway to express his anger about "lies and rumours".

The judge has the power to change just one number
The judge explained to the packed courtroom, which he observed included "well dressed young people from a school", what a second degree murder conviction means. It automatically means "life in prison" with a 25 year sentence, and a requirement that a minimum of 10 years be served in prison before eligibility for parole. The judge added that most of this punishment is out of his control -- except for one number. He can top up the minimum 10 year period Knibbs must serve in prison before he is eligible to apply for parole. Prosecutor, Michael Luchencko, asked him to do that, to jack up the minimum sentence to anywhere from 10-13 years.

Judge Silverman explained to members of the public in the court room that when Knibbs becomes eligible for parole, it "doesn't mean he gets out; it just means he gets to apply."

What worked in Knibbs' favour during sentencing

In deciding whether to top up the 10 year minimum, Judge Silverman listed facts that he was considering in Knibbs' favour:

In the days leading up to the deaths of Habib and Liscombe, the judge said, Knibbs had intervened in an "altercation" between the two. Knibbs had given Habib "one punch" and "ended the altercation".

In the minutes before the murders, Knibbs and his cousin had questioned an associate of Habib's, then escorted him out of the building. He was "not assaulted or anything", the judge noted.

One thing that the judge found to be "most favourable" to the accused was that the victim had fired the first shot. Then events "unfolded quickly", over five to six seconds. The judge noted that this murder was not even close to first degree; it lacked planning or deliberation: "It was reaction."

Another factor that the judge said he considered "significant" was "the fact that the victim brought the shotgun to the scene." "Habib acquired the shot gun on an instantaneous basis", the judge said. He noted that a witness, 19 yr. Leroy Charlie, had testified that Habib entered his room on the afternoon of the shootings and pulled a sawed off shotgun out from under his trench coat. "It is possible that if Mr. Habib had not have brought the shotgun, Mr. Knibbs would not have shot him."

What worked against Knibbs during sentencing
Judge Silverman said he is convinced that Knibbs did not plan to go to Habib's room to kill him, but he and his cousin "were certainly going to confront him". After Habib fired the first shot, though, Knibbs had a "quick reaction that came with an intent to kill or to cause bodily harm" severe enough to result in death. "There is no question in my mind", the judge said.

What is very clear from the verdict," Judge Silverman said, "is that Mr. Knibbs was not acting in self defense and he was not provoked in the sense that the law means that word." Silverman continued, "When Mr. Knibbs shot Mr. Habib, Mr. Habib no longer presented a threat of violence to Mr. Knibbs...he had been disarmed or his weapon was no longer working and Mr. Knibbs knew it."

Judge listens to the jury

After Saturday's verdict, the judge told the jury that if they recommended a minimum sentence, he would definitely take it into consideration. He said he would listen to them. And he did. He ruled that Knibbs will be eligible to apply for parole in ten years.

The judge told Knibbs, that he is "barred for life from possession of a firearm." Knibbs must also provide a DNA sample.

The trial: the last business of your child's life

Writer Dominick Dunne, whose young adult daughter was murdered, once said he thought it was important for the parents of a murder victim to make appearances at the trial: "The trial is the last business of your child's life."

I saw Ekoh Habib's mother a few minutes after the sentencing, when I came out of Tim Horton's with a take-out coffee in my hand. She was sauntering along in her green blazer in the spring sun, looking down at the sidewalk.