After the tears ended and angry accusers fell silent, the drunk driver convicted of the November 2011 manslaughter of three young men on a highway outside Beaumont was handed an eight-year prison sentence Thursday.
Johnathan Pratt, 31, was sentenced following an emotional day in which over two dozen victim impact statements chronicled the devastation felt by family, friends and the town of Beaumont following the Nov. 26, 2011 deaths of 18 year olds Bradley Arsenault and Kole Novak, and Thaddeus Lake, 22.
Court of Queen's Bench Justice Paul Belzil said he hoped his decision would bring "some small measure of closure" to a crime he deemed "outrageous" and "truly egregious."
"Nothing I can say or do can reverse this tragedy," Belzil said.
Pratt never touched the brakes in the five seconds before his Dodge Ram - travelling at 199 km/h - rear ended Arsenault's Pontiac Grand Am at 2:45 a.m. The three men, who approached Beaumont on Highway 625 at the posted speed limit of 70 km/h, died at the scene. The crash was loud enough some people in town heard it.
Pratt's blood-alcohol level was 2 1/2 times the legal limit.
The Crown sought 10 years in the case. Prosecutor Ryan Pollard compared Pratt's actions to the reckless discharging of firearms. Pratt's lawyer, Timothy Dunlap, argued his client should be given a four to seven year sentence, warning too harsh a penalty "would crush Mr. Pratt."
Belzil found middle ground, sentencing Pratt to three five year concurrent sentences for manslaughter plus three three year sentences for impaired driving causing death. He also handed him a lifetime ban on driving, with the chance to apply to use an interlock mechanism after five years.
During the trial in May, Dunlap had argued his client hadn't actually been driving that night. Unidentified DNA was found on an airbag in the car, but there were no footprints and no defence witnesses were called, so Belzil dismissed the idea. On Thursday, Pratt shook and blinked and his chin quivered while family members recalled their grief and occasionally addressed him with an accusation. When given a final word before sentencing, he opted to "speak from the heart" rather than read a prepared statement.
"I feel for everyone that's affected. I don't ask for forgiveness for myself, I ask for forgiveness for you, because you deserve it," Pratt said.
Dunlap had underlined Pratt's struggle with alcohol, which he termed "a disease, a weakness, a frailty that cannot be overcome without help." He also noted Pratt's upbringing in a broken home with a history of alcoholism. As a small boy, Pratt chose to live with a father who beat him instead of a mother whose constant parties terrified him. He would leave the house and go hide out in the woods, Dunlap said, urging Belzil to consider the "thoughts that went through his mind as he sat in the woods."
While courts recognize aboriginal backgrounds in sentencing, Belzil pointed out that the Winnipeg born Pratt - who has one Caucasian and one aboriginal parent - had "never embraced aboriginal culture" or even visited the first nation of his ancestors. But Belzil also noted Pratt's remorse, recognizing Pratt had not had a drink in the 1,006 days since the accident.
A packed courthouse was full of supporters wearing wrist bands and pins. Victim impact statements sounded similar themes: recalling the moment of first learning about the crash, the holidays subsequently emptied of celebration, days devoid of joy and a future robbed of promise. Trish Hrytsak, a teacher at Ecole Secondaire Beaumont High School, compiled numerous statements into one presented on behalf of the town of Beaumont.
"The day they died, a black cloud was cast over our town," she said. "We still cry. We still mourn. We never forget."
Zane Novak talked about how his son Kole taught him to snowboard, worked in his welding shop and ended every conversation with "I love you dad." Novak turned to Pratt, talking about the cash in his pocket which would have easily paid for the $12 cab ride to town.
"Eighteen years old and dead," he said of his son. "He died in the cold."
Sheri Arsenault spoke for half an hour, talking about her son Bradley, who was set to study chemical engineering at NAIT and had been working framing houses. She bookended her statement with the same words: "I am currently in a place no one can find on a map, and I do not have a son anymore." She also told Pratt any apology was too late, and would be "hollow, meaningless and dishonest."
Outside court, Karen Lake spoke about her son Thaddeus, who had been a bassist in a popular local pop punk band. She still sees the adventurous young man in the little boys that take piano lessons from her. Her son had an expression, "Let the music speak for itself," which he had turned into an idea for a tattoo. She's trying to live her life with that same music.
While satisfied that Pratt's sentence was long and reflected serious consideration, Lake said it wouldn't compare with the sentence she and the other families must carry.
"We will carry that heartache with us forever," Lake said.