A former correctional officer who repeatedly choked his spouse into unconsciousness while their young children screamed nearby is to be sentenced next week in provincial court in Truro.
“She fought him until she passed out,” Crown attorney Thomas Kayter said during a sentencing hearing Thursday for James William Herritt.
“That’s the first pass-out I will refer to in this transaction.”
Herritt, 43, of Parks Road in Greenfield, previously pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm against his former spouse.
Additional charges of attempted murder, confinement and uttering threats were withdrawn in exchange for the guilty plea, which means the victim doesn’t have to testify in a trial.
Although the facts of the case were provided during the sentencing hearing, Judge Al Bégin reserved his decision until Feb. 14.
Court heard that Herritt, who has two children with the woman, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his work as a correctional officer when the assault occurred last June 13.
The assaults took place over about a two-hour period following a previous day of “verbal and emotional” abuse after the woman told Herritt she no longer wanted to continue the relationship, that he had to leave the home and that she was leaving to get away for a couple of days.
Kayter said Herritt’s abusive behaviour began at about 9 a.m. on the second day and continued until the assaults started in the early afternoon when his common-law spouse took some clothes out of the closet and began to pack.
“He got up off the bed very quickly and grabbed her from behind in a chokehold,” Kayter said. “He put her on the floor. He told her that ‘You are going to die’ or ‘You are dying.’”
At one point after regaining consciousness and hearing her sons screaming, the woman realized she had “defecated in her pants” from the ordeal.
“He then said, ‘You are never going to see your kids again,’” Kayter told the court.
Herritt repeatedly threatened to kill the woman and himself, while also telling her that their kids would be parentless.
“She did what she could do physically to preserve her life and the life of her children,” Kayter said.
Herritt is considerably larger than his victim and despite “kicking, punching and scratching him” to the best of her ability, she could not escape his attacks.
The court heard that she tried three times to jump out a window but he kept pulling her back.
Throughout the ordeal, Herritt was also talking in a delusional manner, questioning whether the kids were his, accusing her of being unfaithful and of being with the United States government.
“For a good hour or so, he kept asking who she was and who she was working for,” Kayter said.
Eventually, after telling her that he was going to take some pills and cut his wrists, Herritt came back to the bedroom with some prescription narcotics and a knife, which he began waving around, making the woman fear even more that she was about to be killed.
He then swallowed a number of the pills and ultimately passed out, at which point the woman called 911.
After police arrived, Herritt was transported unconscious to the hospital where he was put into a medically induced coma for about 48 hours.
Defence lawyer Patrick MacEwen told court that in addition to Herritt being “very sick” from his PTSD symptoms, his client had very little recollection of the events.
Bégin, however, said that after reading a lengthy forensic report from the East Coast Forensic Hospital in Dartmouth, he had serious doubts about Herritt’s lack of ability in remembering the day’s events, especially considering that 23 pages of the report were dedicated to documenting why medical officials did not believe him.
“I am going to warn you now Mr. McEwan, I read the East Coast Forensic report and they call him a bad faker at best. When he says he doesn’t recall, I don’t accept it,” Begin said, describing that aspect of the report as being “unusual.”
“They don’t believe much of what he says. He’s a bad faker,” the judge repeated.
Both the victim and her mother struggled through tears to read victim impact statements in which they described how they had been affected by the assault, which Kayter described as a case of “extreme savagery” and “a prolonged violent action.”
The woman’s mother said that when she first saw her daughter’s bruises and listened to her story, “I wanted to scream.”
“Nothing could have ever prepared me for this,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to see her hurting so much.”
The victim said she still has mental flashbacks “of thinking I was going to die, of being sure I was going to die, of not being able to breathe” along with the fear of thinking about her kids being left alone with her body “and not being found until it was too late for them to be OK.”
“I have fears of how this has impacted my (oldest) son... she said, adding in her statement that he sometimes comes up to her and says, “Daddy killed you.’”
“I am afraid of him,” she said, of Herritt. “I do not want to live in fear but I am.”
Herritt sat with his head hung throughout most of the hearing, at times appearing to be silently weeping.
“I never wanted anybody to get hurt in my life, ever,” he said, when asked at the end of the hearing if he had anything to say.
“And, I’m sorry you got hurt,” he said, turning to face the vicitim.
Zayter called for a two-year jail sentence, minus the approximately eight months remand time Herritt has served behind bars, plus a period of probation to follow upon his release.
MacEwen recommended a lengthy period of probation combined with community supervision.
He described Herritt as being “very sick” with PTSD at the time of the assault and said his client has already suffered from “significant mental health concerns” and been punished by knowing that “he has destroyed his family.” He’s now essentially being held in “administrative segregation” 22 to 23 hours per day for his own safety because of his previous position as a correctional officer.
“Mr. Herritt, quite frankly, has been punished. He continues to be punished,” MacEwen said.