Lethbridge trial takes on feel of a family gathering
Parents facing prison time if jury finds them guilty in their toddler’s death
Over many years of covering criminal trials, I’ve witnessed a wide range of human behaviour. What I’ve seen and heard these past two weeks of covering the trial of David and Collet Stephan, though, is a first.
The toddlers and preschoolers babbled and chattered, the babies cooed and gurgled. One tiny tot got fussed and started to cry before letting out a blood-curdling scream.
The man in uniform got up from his chair and walked slowly over to the mom, asking in a gentle whisper if she could take the child outside.
Over many years of covering criminal trials for Postmedia, I’ve witnessed a wide range of human behaviour and activity within the sturdy walls of a courthouse. What I’ve seen and heard these past two weeks of covering the trial of David and Collet Stephan, though, is a first.
Most days at the six-week trial have had more the feel of a family gathering, complete with newborns right up to elderly grandparents. I’ve never been in a courtroom where small ones are not only tolerated but also allowed to provide ambient sound until they get just a little too cantankerous.
Then again, there are a lot of firsts at this trial for the young parents accused of failing to provide the necessaries of life for their son, Ezekiel Stephan.
Those charges — which could result in prison time of up to five years and possibly the loss of custody of their other three sons — stem from Ezekiel’s death on March 18, 2012. The 18-monthold died after succumbing to what a pathologist testified was a combination of bacterial meningitis and a lung infection.
The Crown contends the child’s death occurred after he suffered from deteriorating health for more than two weeks; despite this, they say his parents chose herbal remedies and other naturopathic treatments, rather than take their son to a physician or hospital.
Another trial first has been in the steadfast loyalty of family and friends to the two accused. In just about every other criminal case, when there’s a crowd, it’s for the victim of a crime; on the side of the accused, they’re lucky if they have one or two relatives present to publicly stand by the person or persons accused.
The trial emanating from the death of Ezekiel has been a rare one, indeed.
On Monday afternoon, its unusual aspects were in full colour as Justice Rodney Jerke gave the jury his final instructions before they were sequestered to render a verdict.
The supporters on this day swelled to more than 60, many of them dressed up for what could be mistaken for Sunday church service.
While the odd youngster made a noisy fuss, those supporters stayed quiet as the judge went through two hours of instruction, reminding the members of the jury that it’s their job to make their decision based on the facts in the case, his job to know the law.
He reminded them the accused are innocent until proven guilty, that if they decided upon a guilty verdict, that it had to be beyond a reasonable doubt. “A reasonable doubt is not an imaginary or frivolous doubt,” he said, “rather, it is based on reason or common sense.”
Jerke also reminded them that they could decide on guilt or innocence for each individually.
While much of his monologue dealt with principles and concepts of law and justice, there were more than a few tense moments. While he went over the main elements of the criminal charge against them, Collet Stephan bowed her head and cried while her husband put his arm around her.
As representatives from various media outlets were making plans to release the Stephans’ calls to 911 on March 13, 2012, as well as recordings of interviews with police — those tapes couldn’t be released until the jury was sequestered — Jerke wrapped up his instructions by summing up the two sides of the case, the defence’s contention that Ezekiel had viral meningitis, his death caused by an illequipped ambulance, not his parents; and the Crown’s case, that Ezekiel’s parents either saw the risk and chose not to act appropriately, or “did not turn their mind to the risk, as a reasonably prudent parent would have.”
After jury members were excused, they were called back a final time. Once more, Jerke reiterated that their job was to keep their minds open, to “try your best to decide this case.”
Once they left the room, the judge turned to the packed courtroom. “And now,” he said, “we wait.”
With that, the Stephans walked out of the courtroom, embracing a lineup of supporters. Then, they retreated to a room in the courthouse — squeezing in scores of people, from crying babies to the elderly — to wait.