When youth kill: Should jail time match the crime?

By Kimberley Laws

Heather Fraser was 16 years old when she was brutally raped and murdered on a cold, January evening in Smiths Falls in 1985. This is the young woman’s yearbook photo from Smiths Falls District Collegiate from the year she was murdered.

Heather Fraser was 16 years old when she was brutally raped and murdered on a cold, January evening in Smiths Falls in 1985. This is the young woman’s yearbook photo from Smiths Falls District Collegiate from the year she was murdered.

It was a bitterly cold Tuesday morning in January, 1985. The school buses hadn't arrived yet, so the halls of the Smiths Falls District Collegiate were quiet with just a few early arrivals trudging towards their lockers. I was one of them.

This school day started like any other. I went to my locker, shed my winter jacket and boots, and began the task of hunting for my books for first period. Then I heard them. Sobs. Shouts of disbelief. Someone saying, "No, no, no." There was a group of girls gathered near the school entrance, hugging each other in a heart-wrenching moment of grief. We had lost one of our own.

Heather Fraser was 16 years old--a gifted student, ringette player, Highland dancer, and Sunday school teacher. She had big brown eyes, short dark hair, and a warm smile. Everybody liked her. No one ever could have imagined that she would be murdered.

As the morning pushed towards noon, information began to emerge about what had happened to our classmate the evening before. Heather had left school at around five o'clock that day following a students' council meeting. Rather than call her parents for a ride--as she usually would--she decided to walk home. A mere three blocks away from her house, she encountered her killer. While the details of her injuries remained unknown, we did learn that she had been stabbed more than once and left in the snow to die.

Bleeding profusely, Heather dragged herself over 600 feet towards Abbott Street, where her frantic father found her. He flagged down a vehicle and she was transported to the Smiths Falls Hospital. From there, she was taken to the Ottawa Civic Hospital where she passed at 1:02 a.m.

It felt like our small town lost its innocence that day. A senseless act of violence stole a young girl's life and robbed residents of a sense of security. After all, a killer walked amongst us. We looked at one another with suspicion. After-school activities were cancelled. Kids no longer walked home from school. And no one went out after dark.

These were the days before DNA-testing and the case remained unsolved for weeks. Snow from the murder scene was melted and filtered for semen and blood. Foot prints were analyzed. Finally the culprit was found. His boots matched the prints found at the scene. He had the correct rare blood type. And, he bragged to his cellmate--an undercover police officer--that he did, in fact, commit the crime.

17-year-old Jamie Giff was no stranger to the criminal element. A high school dropout who regularly tortured his girlfriend, Giff had already been convicted of involvement in two armed robberies. He hated women and often fantasized about hurting them. On January 28th, 1985, he found himself face-to-face with an unwitting victim.

He asked Heather if he could borrow a light. She replied that she didn't smoke. He wielded a buck knife and told her to follow him. He forced her through the snow to a secluded spot by an aged rusty lift-bridge. Giff proceeded to rape the young girl, mutilate her privates with his knife, stab her in her upper right chest and, again, in her back below the right shoulder blade. He, then, left her for dead.

This was a young man who had committed a heinous crime--and was quite capable of doing it again. The Young Offenders' Act had been passed the year before, but the provinces still had the right to designate a maximum age of 16 or 17 at the time. Jamie Giff was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole for 25 years. He was tried as an adult.

In April of that same year, the maximum age for the Youth Offenders' Act became 18 across Canada. In 1985, this act stipulated that the maximum sentence for first-degree murder was five years less a day, with only three years of jail time and two years of community supervision. Had Giff committed this crime a few months later, he would have been released into society at the mere age of 20--free to commit repeat acts of violence. This was later changed to a 10-year maximum term with six years of incarceration, it still pales in comparison to an adult sentence. The subsequent Youth Criminal Justice Act does allow for youth to be tried as adults, but only if "the prosecution rebuts the presumption that the young person has diminished moral blameworthiness or culpability and that a youth sentence would not be of sufficient length to hold the young person accountable." Surely, when a 16 or 17-year-old takes the life of an innocent human being, a youth sentence is never enough.

There is something wrong with a society that values the human rights of 16 and 17-year-old killers more than they value the victim's right to justice and ensuring the safety of the rest of us. The law seems to say that at the age of 16, youth should not automatically be held accountable for their actions. They don't yet know right from wrong. Yet, sixteen-year-olds are entrusted with the ability to drive cars and give sexual consent. At the age of 17, kids are graduating from high school and making long-term life decisions. This seems very contradictory.

In honour of Heather Fraser and all of the other victims of violent youth offenders, this needs to change. We need to stop focusing on the age of the offender and, instead, ensure that the punishment always matches the crime. 

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