WARNING: This story contains graphic details of violence.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge says the problem of domestic abuse has reached a point where a "distinct and higher range of sentencing" is needed when punishing those who commit violence against intimate partners.
Justice Anthony Saunders reached that conclusion last month when sentencing a Vancouver Island man who broke into the home of his former common law spouse and slashed her face with a box cutter as 911 operators listened to her "audible, terrified screams."
Clinton George Armstrong was convicted of a number of offences, including aggravated assault — which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years. He received a total sentence of eight years, less 965 days for time served.
"I question whether, in view of the seriousness of the problem of [intimate partner violence] and the persistence of the problem, our sentencing paradigms are now at the point when a distinct and higher range of sentencing should be articulated," Saunders wrote.
The judge said premeditated intimate-partner violence leading to personal injury should draw a sentence in the "upper range" for aggravated assault.
Vicious attack was retaliation for calling 911
Armstrong slapped his former common law spouse, Taura Leith, in the face and pushed her on Dec. 28, 2019, after she called police during an argument.
He was charged with assault, and Leith, shaken by the events, provided a victim impact statement on Feb. 6, 2020. Four days later, Armstrong broke into her home.
"He then proceeded to viciously attack her with a box cutter-type tool," Saunders wrote.
Leith called 911 and dropped the phone handset as she fought for her life. The line remained open while Armstrong "proceeded to slash her face, head and torso."
"Armstrong said repeatedly that he intended to kill [the victim] and then kill himself, yelling, 'You're dying,' 'I'm gonna cut your throat,' and 'You're gonna die like I'm gonna die,'" Saunders wrote.
"He made it clear that this attack was in retaliation for her having called the police during the December assault and, he said, falsely accusing him of assault."
Armstrong was charged with attempted murder, but the judge found reasonable doubt as to whether the Courtenay, B.C., man actually intended to kill Leith, in part because he also made statements such as, "I'm not gonna kill ya, I'm just gonna maim ya."
Armstrong claimed he wasn't a violent person. "I don't hit women," he testified.
Criminal Code change allows for life sentence
University of B.C. law professor Isabel Grant says Parliament has been telling the courts for some time to increase sentences for intimate-partner violence, and the Criminal Code has been amended to allow for higher sentences. But, Grant says, judges have been slow to apply them.
"It's very important that they are saying things like this," Grant said of Saunders's statement.
"It's inconsistent because judges are individuals, too, and they all have their own views on this. What we really need is strong direction from appellate courts, who tell sentencing judges what the range of sentences is for a particular offence."
Parliament enacted legislation in 1996 to make a spousal relationship between offender and victim an aggravating factor at sentencing. The language expanded over the years to include current and former intimate partners, dating partners and their family members.
The Criminal Code was amended in 2019 to allow judges to raise the maximum penalty in domestic abuse cases where an offender has a previous conviction for intimate-partner violence.
The provision allows judges to impose a life sentence for a crime, such as aggravated assault, that normally carries a maximum sentence of 14 years or more.
More risk from partner than stranger
In Armstrong's case, the Crown wanted him to serve between 10 and 12 years while the defence said four-and-a-half years would be more appropriate.
Armstrong had been the subject of a restraining order from another partner in 2004 and pleaded guilty to assaulting a partner in 2005.
A psychologist said the 50-year-old would continue to be a high risk for violence when "his romantic intimate partner decides to end the relationship."
In order to ensure that Armstrong's sentence fell within an appropriate range, the judge compared his offence to other cases involving convictions for aggravated assault.
The cases Saunders looked at included two involving slashing attacks on strangers, both of which drew seven-year terms for each count of aggravated assault — more time than any of the cases involving intimate-partner violence he examined.
Grant said the courts have long fallen prey to the notion that attacks on strangers are more dangerous than assaults of intimate partners.
"That's the piece that we need to consistently undermine," Grant said.
"Women are in way more danger from their partners and people who are supposed to love them than they are from strangers."
When CBC analyzed 392 intimate-partner homicides between January 2015 and June 2020 in a recent investigation, it found warning signs were present in more than a third of the cases:
Breaking and entering earns higher sentence than assault
Saunders also considered a case in which a man "terrorized" his wife for months, choking her and saying, "If I can't have you, no one can." He later broke into her home in the dead of night and beat the woman and her partner with a baseball bat. The man got a five-and-a-half year sentence.
The judge said he could find nothing that would lead to the length of sentence the Crown was looking for — which led to his conclusions about the need for a higher range of sentences specifically aimed at curbing intimate-partner violence.
At the end of the day, it was breaking and entering, not the assault, that drew the eight-year sentence. Saunders gave Armstrong seven years for aggravated assault to be served concurrently.
Given the time he has already served in prison, Armstrong will be out in five years and 128 days.
At trial, Armstrong claimed he had no memory of the attack. He also professed "to still love and to respect [the victim], and said he would never do anything to harm her."
The judge found that Armstrong was not credible and that his actions spoke for themselves.
"If he now genuinely believes that he has no memory, it is because he has chosen not to remember," Saunders wrote.
Support is available for anyone affected by intimate partner violence. You can access support services and local resources in Canada by visiting this website. If your situation is urgent, please contact emergency services in your area.