‘Naive’ young mother spared more jail time over failure to testify at murder trial

A Manitoba judge spared a young mother further jail time after she failed to appear as a witness at the trial of a man charged with murder.

Sanin Shayleen Clemons, 20, was sentenced Thursday to two months time already served, plus an 18-month conditional sentence, for failing to appear when she was called as a witness last November in the trial of Pierre David Contois.

Contois was one of three men charged with murdering George Prieston in what Crown prosecutor Michael Desautels described as a “drug debt collection gone wrong.”

Prieston was gunned down with an assault rifle at a house on Winnipeg’s Wellington Avenue on May 12, 2016. Contois, along with Raymond Ducharme and Shawn Poitra, were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Clemons never showed up to testify at Contois’s trial and was charged with contempt of court.

Clemons’s defence lawyer, Cameron Pauls, told court on Thursday his client — who was repeatedly described as “naive” by both Crown and defence — was afraid of repercussions from the three alleged gang members and “put her head in the sand.”

Normal sentences for cases like Clemons’s range from 12 months to three years in prison, Desautels said. Pauls asked for a sentence of time served, plus a conditional sentence that would impose a strict curfew.

Balance of consequences

During Clemons’s sentencing hearing on Thursday, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Vic Toews said that a light sentence could send the wrong message to other witnesses, or those accused who might threaten them.

“If the gangbangers, so to speak, know that the relatively naive witnesses won’t go jail for a long time, why not simply intimidate them?” Toews said.

He said he struggled to balance that concern, though, with the possibility that a further prison sentence could lead to Clemons’s 23-month-old son ending up in foster care.

Winnipeg police officers outside a house on Wellington Avenue, where George Prieston was shot and killed on May 12, 2016. (CBC)

Both the Crown and Toews acknowledged that Clemons was a low risk to reoffend, and her time already served in jail had acted as a deterrent for her.

“I feel for Ms. Clemons. The last thing anyone wants is to separate a child from their parent. That is not the idea here. The point is, though, the concept is bigger than Ms. Clemons,” said Desautels.

Sending Clemons to prison could force her mother to choose between her own employment and putting a young child in CFS care, Pauls said.

“That is the heartbreaking side of this,” Pauls said. “That’s been the most difficult fact for my client.”

“Quite frankly, it’s the most difficult issue for me as well,” Toews replied.

Family support

Pauls pointed out that his client had no previous criminal record and assured the justice that she has a strong support network, including her mother and grandmother, both of whom spoke at her sentencing hearing.

“We would do anything, anything in the world to make it that she could be [at home],” her mother, Cheryl Clemons, told the court.

Under the conditions of her sentence, Clemons must reside either at her own apartment or with her mother, and abide by a curfew that requires her to be home between 5 p.m. and 12 p.m., except for medical emergencies.

She must also abstain from alcohol and non-prescription drugs, including cannabis, and avoid all contact with any gang members.

Despite the fact Clemons failed to testify, Toews convicted Contois of second-degree murder on Jan. 11, 2019. He has yet to be sentenced.

Poitra and Ducharme pleaded guilty to manslaughter in March and were sentenced to 13 years each.

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