Jaskirat Singh Sidhu’s guilty plea to all charges of criminal negligence against him resulting from the horrific Humboldt Broncos bus crash was unexpected, and has set off a lively debate amongst the defense bar. The plea was either a shrewd legal move or a dumb maneuver bordering on incompetence. Criminal defense lawyers, many of whom have never met a microphone they didn’t like, are taking to the media to second-guess the decision and to opine as to what they would have done. This case highlights the difficulty of one of the biggest judgment calls facing any criminal defense lawyer in every case- knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.
If the crown’s case was compelling (which defense counsel would now know, based on the mandatory pre-trial disclosure of evidence) and revealed criminality in the manner in which the transfer truck was being operated, then the unconditional guilty pleas were a smart move. The court must take into account the early plea and give Sidhu some credit for doing so when imposing sentence. It saved the families from the anguish of a long trial and affords them some closure, and that deserves to be taken into account, so he will undoubtedly serve less jail time in the result
Equally sage then would be the decision to plead guilty to every count on the indictment; one for each player killed and one for each one injured. Whether a single life was taken or 16, it is still only one transaction, one horrible accident, and one act of culpable behavior that resulted in the deaths and injuries. Sidhu will be sentenced on the basis of that single transaction, and indeed had the trial been run, it’s inconceivable that he could have been found guilty of some, but not all of the deaths. Pleading guilty to all counts puts the accused in no greater peril, but means everything to the families of the victims.
Assuming, of course that there is actually was a culpable act. This is what has some defense counsel tearing their hair. Criminal negligence is a notoriously difficult charge to prove. The law is clear that a single momentary lack of attention is insufficient to make out the charge, and just because there was an horrific accident does not mean that the driver who caused it was necessarily guilty of a criminal act. So far, the public record has been devoid of any ‘smoking gun’ evidence against the driver, as we don’t really know what happened. Was the accident the result of the driver being briefly blinded by the sun, or was the stop sign he blew obscured by vegetation? If so, Sidhu is likely not guilty of criminal negligence, and his lawyer should never have allowed him to throw his hands up. Rather, the trial ought to have been run and the evidence against Sidhu tested.
When the sentencing hearing commences, the first item of business for the judge will in fact be to satisfy him or herself that the Crown has the evidence to convict, and that the conviction being registered is a sound one, notwithstanding the willingness of the accused to plead guilty. It is not unknown for a judge to set aside a guilty plea which seemed to have been based more upon expediency than the facts, and to order the case to proceed. The Crown is certainly aware of this possibility, and has accordingly set aside a full five days to make its submissions to the judge, which will include a detailed summary of the evidence against the accused.
Sidhu’s lawyer is Mark Brayford Q.C. an experienced and respected criminal defence lawyer, so personally, I’m inclined to the view that he has engineered a clever move and made the best of a bad situation for his client, but it sure is interesting listening to all the armchair quarterbacks in the barrister’s lounge explaining how they could have done it better!