WINNIPEG – Victims praised the decision of the Manitoba Court of Appeal on Friday to more than double the sentence of child molester and former junior hockey coach Graham James.
“This is a great day for all survivors,” retired NHL star Theo Fleury, who played for the Calgary Flames, said on Twitter after the court boosted James’s sentence to five years from two.
It was largely because of Fleury that James faced a second set of charges for molesting junior hockey players under his care. He had been convicted in 1997 for sex assaults against three others, including former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy.
Kennedy also posted an online comment after the court announced its decision.
“Everyday together we try to create a better place for our kids. I am confident the trauma our kids suffer from abuse is becoming visible,” he said on Twitter.
Later, Fleury appeared on a radio talk show in Winnipeg where he repeated that he was happy with the decision, even though he would have liked to see an even longer sentence.
“A win’s a win in hockey terms,” he said on CJOB. “We have a long way to go, but today was a breakthrough.”
Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson issued a statement in which he suggested the decision had helped to maintain faith in the justice system.
“The public loses faith in the justice system when they feel that the consequences of breaking the law are inadequate,” he said.
“Child sexual abuse and exploitation are very serious crimes that call out for serious penalties. I am pleased that the Manitoba Court of Appeal has recognized through this decision that children – the most vulnerable members of our society – must be protected from sexual predators.”
He referred to his government’s plan to introduce legislation this year that “further cracks down on child sexual predators.”
Appeal courts don’t often interfere with sentences.
“An appellate court should not intervene in either the duration of the sentence, or the type of sentence ordered, absent an error in principle or unless the sentence is demonstrably unfit,” Justice Alan MacInnes wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.
In this case, he said, trial judge Catherine Carlson did make a mistake during James’s sentencing in Winnipeg last year.
“The decision of the judge was thorough and thoughtful. Notwithstanding, I have concluded that she erred.”
James was a rising star among junior hockey coaches in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He had been named man of the year by The Hockey News in 1989 after coaching the Swift Current Broncos to a WHL championship and Memorial Cup.
He became general manager and coach of the Calgary Hitmen in 1994. At that point, he’d already been molesting players under his guidance for years.
He started with Fleury in 1984 and selected Fleury’s cousin Todd Holt for similar treatment in 1989. James pleaded guilty to molesting both men when they were teenagers.
He was given two years but the Crown argued in its appeal that Carlson had erred in her application of sentencing principles and put too much weight on the 3 1/2 years he received in 1997 for abusing other young players, including Kennedy.
MacInnes said James does deserve some credit for turning his life around since his original conviction.
“During the 14 years between the completion of his 1997 sentence and the date of his sentence under appeal, the accused, through therapy and his own efforts, has been able to control and redirect his sexual preference away from minors,” the judge wrote.
“The accused has become a rehabilitated and contributing member of society.”
If not for that, he would have faced a sentence of eight years, MacInnes said.
“In my view, an eight-year sentence without adjustment for totality would, in all of the circumstances, be a crushing sentence not in keeping with the accused’s record and prospects,” the judge wrote.
Fleury, however, said he does not believe James is a changed man in any way. He noted he took advantage of the federal pardon he received in 2010 to live in Spain and then Mexico.
“Don’t tell me that he is reformed.”
James was sentenced in March 2012 and was already eligible to apply for full parole, which can be granted after an offender serves one-third of his or her sentence.
He won’t be eligible now until the fall of 2013.