Fort Saskatchewan man guilty of manslaughter in son’s death

Click to play video: 'Fort Saskatchewan father found guilty in 1-year-old son’s death'
Fort Saskatchewan father found guilty in 1-year-old son’s death
WATCH: Damien Starrett was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of his baby boy, Ares Starrett, who died in November 2019. The baby suffered fatal injuries when his dad punched and kicked him in what the Crown called a fit of rage. Sarah Ryan has the details – Jun 29, 2022

On Wednesday, a judge found Damien Starrett guilty of manslaughter in the death of his one-year-old son and guilty of assaulting his five-year-old daughter.

Justice John Henderson said: “I do not accept his statement that he (Starrett) was not aware of what was happening at the time of the assaults.”

Starrett, from Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., northeast of Edmonton, was charged with the second-degree murder of Ares Starrett in November 2019.

His lawyer argued he was not criminally responsible because he had a severe sleep disorder that made him do things he wasn’t aware of.

Rory Ziv argued that a severe sleep disorder put the man in a state of automatism, which made him incapable of understanding his actions when he killed his son and injured his daughter.

Read more: Not-criminally-responsible defense to be entered in Fort Saskatchewan baby death trial

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Starrett testified at the trial that he has no memory of hurting his children, saying he fell asleep on the couch while caring for them. He said he dreamt he was being attacked and awoke to find that he injured his children.

A sleep expert also testified at trial after examining the man two years following the boy’s death. Dr. Colin Shapiro said he found “thumbprints” of parasomnia, a disorder in which people do things while asleep that they are unaware of, such as sleepwalking.

Shapiro testified he saw multiple arousals during the man’s deep sleep.

Starrett was initially charged with second-degree murder, but the prosecution asked the judge to consider a verdict of manslaughter instead.

Click to play video: 'Fort Saskatchewan man accused in son’s death testifies in own defence'
Fort Saskatchewan man accused in son’s death testifies in own defence

Crown attorney Sandra Christensen-Moore said at trial earlier in June that evidence suggested Starrett was intoxicated at the time of the attack, which would affect his ability to form the intent needed for second-degree murder.

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Read more: Sleep expert testifies Fort Saskatchewan father was likely not awake when he killed his son

In announcing his verdict Wednesday, Justice Henderson said it was more likely that the accused was suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms from his opioid addiction and lashed out at his children.

Court heard that Starrett has a history of substance abuse with cocaine, alcohol, heroin and prescription opioids. He admitted to self-medicating his back pain with heroin and illegally obtained Percocet.

Henderson said Starrett got into an argument with his partner the day of his son’s death and threw a plate in the woman’s direction because they did not have enough money for him to buy cigarettes.

“Certainly there is no doubt on the evidence that (the man) was having serious sleep difficulties and serious back pain at the time of these events,” the judge said.

“I’m also satisfied that the evidence is very clear that he was experiencing other stressors, including financial issues and relationship issues. He was also experiencing significant symptoms of heroin withdrawal.”

But Henderson said the defence was not able to prove that Starrett was in a state of automatism when he attacked his children.

“While I am satisfied that there is some evidence that could potentially support the conclusion of automatism, when I consider the totality of the evidence, I find it is not possible to come to that conclusion.”

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Click to play video: 'Another doctor testifies in support of sleep defence in Starrett trial'
Another doctor testifies in support of sleep defence in Starrett trial

The judge said Starrett, who was prone to explosive outbursts, adapted his story about what happened the day of his son’s death as a way to rationalize his behaviour.

Henderson said such rationalization was most evident in the “evolving story” of Starrett’s dream of being teleported and attacked by a shadow creature during which he was trying to protect his children.

“This story did not exist for more than one year after (the boy’s) death and it only began evolving thereafter… The story was crafted to satisfy a narrative that would lead to a conclusion of automatism.”

Read more: Fort Saskatchewan man accused in son’s death not responsible due to sleep disorder: lawyer

Henderson noted that a forensic psychologist testified that Starrett had unresolved anger issues.

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The judge said Starrett became overwhelmed by his situation and burst out in an aggressive and disproportionate manner when striking his children.

“I conclude that this explanation is for the attack is much more likely than the conclusion of automatism.”

Click to play video: 'Closing arguments in Damien Starrett trial'
Closing arguments in Damien Starrett trial

Ares’ mother was in court Wednesday as the verdict was read. She was seen holding on to a teddy bear throughout the proceedings.

The woman cannot be identified due to a court-ordered publication ban protecting the identity of the little girl, who is a minor.

Ares’ mother said she was pleased with the verdict but had hoped for a stronger conviction given that Starrett was charged with second-degree murder.

“Given our justice system, I think it’s the best possible outcome.”

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It’s been a long, hard process, she said.

“It’s been 986 days since (Ares) was (killed). It shouldn’t take this long.

“This whole time, (Starrett) has been out there. I didn’t feel safe or comfortable… He is a very explosive person at times, so it’s best he isn’t out in the public.”


Damien Christopher Starrett, 33, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of his one-year-old son. Credit: Facebook

She said she felt sick to her stomach as the judge explained his decision.

“It was a lot of uncertainty on which direction this could go. But I’m glad the judge did see through his inconsistencies while he was testifying.

“I can finally put his side — Damien’s side of the story — to rest and just focus on Ares… for everyone to know just how special and kind he was.

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“He was only just over one but he had quite the personality. He never cried, he was never upset. He was by far the easiest baby I’ve ever had or seen and I’m just trying to keep those memories alive.”

She said her daughter has a difficult road ahead.

“Every day is going to be a constant battle with healing. She’ll be affected by this for the rest of her life. She was old enough to remember.”

The judge revoked bail for Starrett.

Sentencing is not expected until the fall.

Click to play video: 'Closing arguments in Damien Starrett trial'
Closing arguments in Damien Starrett trial

Starrett’s lawyer said this was a hard case for everyone.

“There’s no winners here.

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“In almost 20 years, this is one of the saddest cases I’ve had to deal with.”

Ziv also said the sentencing will be challenging.

“(I’m) relieved that he’s found not guilty of murder, (but) disappointed he was found criminally responsible to some extent.

“We’ve lost Ares here, and of course my client feels terrible about that — that was his son.

“He’s lost his daughter as well in this process. There’s a long road ahead and hopefully he’ll be able to become whole again one day.”

With files from Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press

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