Judge's remarks on 'good' man who killed N.L. woman decried by advocate

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A judge's comments about the murderer of a young Newfoundland mother being an otherwise "good" person were unconscionable and damaging, a women's advocate said Friday.

In a sentencing decision Thursday, Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Justice Donald Burrage wrote of Steven Bragg's murder of Victoria Head: "There are times, thankfully rare, when otherwise good people do terrible things. This is one such occasion."

Bridget Clarke, an advocacy coordinator with the St. John's Status of Women Council, said in an interview the judge's remark "frames the loss of a person, a mother, a family member, a community member as being collateral damage in somebody else's rehabilitation." She called the comments "negligent and really unconscionable."

Head was 36 when she was killed. Her body was found by a woman walking her dog in a wooded area outside St. John's on the morning of Nov. 11, 2017, Burrage's decision says. Bragg admitted to strangling her with a boot lace and then leaving her by the side of a road, with the lace still around her neck.

Police issued a missing-person report for Bragg soon after Head's body was found, not knowing he had any connection with her death. But her brother told police of the relationship after he saw the report, and Bragg was questioned a few days later after he boarded a ferry leaving the island, the judge wrote.

"When initially confronted by the police Mr. Bragg lied, as he sought to distance himself from the scene. His ultimate confession was over three years in the making," Burrage wrote. Bragg, now 39, was originally charged with first-degree murder but pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in May, thus sparing Head's family the trauma of a trial, the judge said.

"By all accounts, the offence is wholly out of character, for a man variously described as 'kind,' 'gentle,' and hardworking,' " Burrage wrote.

He sentenced Bragg to life in prison with eligibility for parole after 10 years — the minimum sentence for second-degree murder — and said the killer's prospects for rehabilitation are "very good." The Crown had recommended no parole eligibility until Bragg had served between 15 and 17 years.

Clarke made it clear that she and her organization are not objecting to the sentence itself, but the manner in which it was delivered, noting the judge seemed to bring "his own perception of morality into the narrative around a violent murder."

"The ripple effects of the comments in the sentence are really felt widely and deeply," she said "Victoria was well known in our community as a beautiful person who was loved and cared for ... the comments don't reflect her full life that was meaningful and valuable."

She added: "Judges have immense power, certainly in situations where they're deliberating and delivering a sentence, but also power in their words and how they approach decision-making. We would encourage all people in positions of power ... especially within the criminal justice system, to really consider the weight of their words."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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