© 2005  Karen Selick
The Farce of Protecting Young Criminals' Identities
An edited version of this article first appeared in the October, 2005 issue of Canadian Lawyer
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The Farce of Protecting Young Criminals’ Identities


On a Tuesday  morning in August, Canadians learned from our morning newspapers that the so-called “Taber killer” was on the loose.  The 20-year-old, who in 1999 had shot and killed one person and injured another at his Taber, Alberta high school, had escaped from a halfway house in Toronto, leaving a note saying he would not be taken alive.  Police considered him dangerous, and cautioned the public not to approach him if they saw him. 

Because the killer had been only 14 at the time of his crime, his name had for six years gone unpublished.  Now, however, police had obtained a court order allowing publication of his name and photograph to assist in his capture.  

I spent a few moments studying the captioned photo before concluding that I would not be able to tell this kid apart from a dozen other dorky-looking kids on the streets of my town, should he happen to wander out this way.  So I dismissed it and returned to the other news.

The next day, headlines announced that the Taber killer had been captured.  This time, however, there was no photograph, and the story noted that the young man’s name “cannot be published.”  

I was amused to note that I could not, for the life of me, remember the kid’s name in any event.  But feeling a bit like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-four, I retrieved the previous day’s paper and gazed keenly at the information which was now supposed to be officially consigned to the memory hole.  No wonder the name hadn’t stuck.  It was a nondescript, eminently forgettable name.  It would have slipped out of my mind again immediately, had not the farcical nature of the affair made it prime column fodder. 

According to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, an order permitting publication of identifying information about a “young person” expires after five days.  The Taber killer’s order had been made on a Monday, so it expired on the following Saturday.  

What would happen to this information on the internet, I wondered?  I checked on Sunday, the day after the order expired.  The Toronto and Durham police forces had removed the identifying information from their websites, but Google’s cached snapshots of both sites still revealed the name.   CTV television network had actually taken the Orwellian step of re-writing its earlier news story to expunge the photograph and name.  Once again, however, Google’s cache yielded the old page.  

The Globe and Mail, National Post and Toronto Star all allowed me to read their earlier stories containing the man’s name.  So did Quicklaw, in its Canadian Press database, which presumably will remain accessible, intact, permanently.  One can only hope that the lunacy of trying to un-publish something already published will be obvious enough even to the Canadian government that these companies won’t face prosecution for failing to rewrite history.  No doubt, however, batteries of lawyers on both sides are already considering the issue. 

But this is not the only farcical aspect of the Youth Criminal Justice Act’s publication prohibitions.  The very idea that we are actually protecting a young offender’s identity in prominent cases like the Taber shooting is ridiculous.  Does anyone really believe there’s a soul in Taber who didn’t know that kid’s name within a few days of the shooting?  There were plenty of people at the school that day, and they all have friends and families.  People gossip.  

Or consider the lengthy murder trial of three Toronto youths which ended this February in a mistrial (known as the “Johnathan” trial after its 12-year-old victim, the brother of one of the accused).  Despite strict compliance by reporters with the non-publication rule, can there be anyone in those teenagers’ social circles who is not aware they’re the guys?  We have three teenaged boys suddenly stop attending school.  There’s a dead 12-year-old who presumably had a funeral.  There’s an injured step-father.  Five teenaged girls miss school on the days of the trial.  What on earth is the point of having reporters refer to these boys as “the broad-shouldered youth” or “the shy, bespectacled youth” when everyone of any consequence in these boys’ lives must already know their names, and anyone who’s not currently of any consequence probably wouldn’t remember their names after a few weeks’ time?   

I suspect that the philosophy behind protecting young offenders’ identity is to recognize that kids shouldn’t be penalized for the rest of their lives by criminal convictions that in some cases are merely youthful indiscretions.  But we can’t have it both ways.  If our law is written this way because it represents what Canadians believe, then why can’t we trust individual Canadians to dismiss what were genuinely youthful peccadilloes when they meet the young offenders years later?  On the other hand, if Canadians really believe that character matters, and that they should have a right to know a person’s reputation and history before deciding whether or not to deal with him, why should the law undermine our ability to protect our lives, our families and our property by denying us information?   

It’s time to end the farce. Repeal the non-publication provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. 

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       November 20,  2005