Christopher Adam Stevens was certain he was aiming for a deer eating under an apple tree, until after he pulled the trigger.
One round from Stevens’ rifle dropped Barry Slaunwhite, stated Crown attorney Emma Baasch, rehashing the tragic events that unfolded on Big Tancook Island on the afternoon of Oct. 28, 2016, which claimed the life of a husband, father of two and grandfather.
Only a few minutes was required to lay out the details of the incident at Bridgewater provincial court on Monday. Stevens immediately realized he had shot Slaunwhite. He dropped his rifle, ran to the victim and called 911.
The Big Tancook resident appeared despondent throughout his sentencing hearing for careless use of a firearm. Stevens told police that when he fired the fatal shot from a distance of 30 metres, Slaunwhite was dressed entirely in camouflage and wasn’t wearing an orange hunting vest.
Judge Paul Scovil adopted the joint recommendation from the Crown and defence, handing Stevens a suspended sentence with a 24-month probation period. Among several other conditions attached to his sentence, Stevens is prohibited from owning firearms for five years and must pay a restitution cost of $3,359.15 to the victim’s wife.
“I can’t think of any graver degree of a careless use of a firearm,” said Scovil. “Often we see careless (use of a firearm) where someone is carrying a firearm inappropriately, maybe discharging inappropriately.”
Stevens, 32, was scheduled for trial in January but pleaded guilty. The maximum sentence in this case was six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.
The hearing was emotionally charged, drawing more than a dozen friends and family members. Eight victim impact statements were presented to the court, including from the victim’s wife, daughter, niece and best friend. Each of them centred on the enormous presence Slaunwhite served in each of their lives.
Tyrone McLean, Slaunwhite’s best friend, was among them. A deckhand on the Tancook ferry that transported the dying victim to the shores of Chester, McLean said he has relived the tragedy every day. He also said he was in disbelief of the judge’s decision.
“Twenty-four months probation for taking a man’s life isn’t right,” said McLean. “Not knowing your target, making a split-second decision and killing somebody? The old rule is you know your target. He obviously didn’t know his target but he shot anyway. Look at the consequences.
“That man should never own a weapon again.”
Sam Slaunwhite, the victim’s wife, also reacted to the decision with anger, saying that her family felt let down by the justice system.
“The Crown failed all of us,” Slaunwhite said. “I’m not surprised at the outcome. Typical, but they didn’t present a strong prosecution and we all felt that way. Even my daughter grabbed my hand while we were in the courtroom and said, ‘I thought they were on our side.’” She and her husband owned a cottage on Big Tancook. Her husband had travelled from their Fairview home the day before he was killed to go deer hunting not far from the property. The victim and Stevens were known to each other, but were not friends.
Baasch and co-counsel Janice Rea spoke of the tragedy of the case and those left to come to terms with it, but said they fulfilled their duty to prosecute the matter with the evidence presented to them.
“We’re empathetic,” said Rea. “It’s a tragic set of circumstances. Having said that, the charge before the court was careless use of a firearm, with a person, 32 years old, with an unrelated criminal record. A probationary sentence was in the Crown’s view an appropriate disposition.”
But the case proved to be a challenge for the Crown, which could produce only one precedent that resulted in serious injury.
The judge acknowledged that the penalty being sought was extremely low and said he had some difficulty going along with the decision. But he also noted some justification for it, namely that Stevens had admitted guilt, showed remorse and that his pre-sentence report was “unremarkable.”
Baasch said a prison sentence wouldn’t have been appropriate in this case.
“Deterrence is a key factor in all sentencing,” Baasch said. “In this situation, it wouldn’t have added an extra deterrent. Evidence before the court of his reaction to (the shooting), a probation order would be sufficient to achieve those ends.”
Stevens has several other conditions attached to his sentence. He is prohibited from contacting Sam Slaunwhite and being within 10 metres of her Big Tancook Island property. He must also keep the peace and be of good behaviour, appear before the court when required to do so, reside in Nova Scotia, and notify his probationary officer in advance of any change in name, address or telephone number as well as any change in employment or occupation. He is also prohibited from possessing or carrying any weapons or ammunition and is required to successfully complete a substance abuse program and all counselling treatment programs as directed by his probation officer. Stevens must also complete a Department of Natural Resources hunter safety course.