In legal parlance it is known as the Queen v. Pangman et al: the joint federal-provincial prosecution of 35 alleged members of the Manitoba Warriors gang – the first major test of Canada’s 1997 gang law. To critics what has transpired over the past 20 months in an ultrasecure Winnipeg court house amounts to a gross abuse of human rights.
The accused, 32 aboriginal men and one aboriginal woman, one Caucasian man and one black man – all alleged members of the Manitoba Warriors gang – were rounded up in October of 1998 and charged jointly by direct indictment under 1997 federal gang legislation designed to cripple organized crime.
For months, the accused have been transported from downtown jail to the specially built court-house, where armour-clad guards stand vigil over video cameras and the accused sit chained to the floor in plastic cages. The facility was constructed inside an old feed warehouse in an industrial neighbourhood of south Winnipeg. The actual trial – which could ultimately cost as much as $20-million to prosecute – is still waiting to proceed. Most of the accused have languished in detention, having been denied bail on charges their lawyers say would have netted most offenders a maximum six to nine months in custody.
Thirteen of the original 35 continue to await trial. Their case, if it doesn’t end in a negotiated settlement this week, could continue for at least another year. After spending about $7-million to date, the Crown has so far secured 20 convictions and has offered two stays in exchange for testimony.
Those who pleaded guilty were jailed for periods of six months to six years, although not all were convicted under the gang law. Most of the remaining accused would have been out of jail by now if they had just pleaded guilty, their lawyers say.
Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, complains that the landmark case is discriminatory because the accused face reverse onus to qualify for bail, and since the majority of them are impoverished they cannot post a surety. He has suggested that he will make a human-rights argument to Amnesty International and the United Nations.
“They [the province] have constructed this super courthouse, there’s super security, the accused are shackled to the floor and in my view, it’s all completely unnecessary,” Mr. Fontaine said. “Where has this been done to anyone before? We have to take this beyond Manitoba.”
He plans to enlist the aid of civil rights heavyweights Rubin (Hurricane Carter) and Rev. Jesse Jackson to draw attention to the case.
Winnipeg lawyer David Phillips, whose office is defending five of the accused, said the Crown and defence are engaged in delicate negotiations over questions of the court’s jurisdiction. Depending on those talks, the case is set to resume – with just eight accused – tomorrow.
There is a chance a deal of some sort may result in the matter being concluded this week. If not, jury selection won’t take place until autumn and jurors should be prepared to strap themselves into their seats for nine to 18 months – taking the case through to 2001 or 2002.
“This case will never get to verdict,” Mr. Phillip said.
“The Crown can barely justify this, given the expense. The allegations are that the Manitoba Warriors were trafficking in cocaine at the street level in various hotels in Winnipeg, at the one-quarter-gram or $20 level. It’s not alleged they were importing or trafficking in kilos.”
At one time, there were a dozen prosecutors and more than 30 defence lawyers appearing before the trial judge, Madam Justice Ruth Krindle of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench.
“There is a huge qualitative difference between a street gang and an organized-crime syndicate,” Mr. Phillips contended. “The alleged president of the gang was driving a 1982 Chevy Malibu, for heaven’s sake. Of the 35 arrested, no one had more than $100 on them. There is no application to seize the proceeds of crime. Some of these guys are charged with welfare fraud. If you weren’t a Manitoba Warrior you’d looking at six to nine months on these charges.”
Under the 1997 law, an offender is sentenced both for the crime and for participating in organized-crime activity. The sentences are served consecutively. The law applies to “any or all of the members of which engage in or have, within the preceding five years, engaged in the commission of a series of such offences.”
An accused found guilty of participating in a criminal organization could receive a maximum of 14 years in prison. Participation in a criminal organization would involve the commission of or conspiracy to commit any offence “for the benefit of, at the direction of or in association with a criminal organization, for which the maximum punishment is imprisonment for five years or more.”
Some of those who have pleaded guilty have received sentences of as little as six months. Others have been jailed for as long as six years (most were sentenced to between 18 months and four years).
“One guy was in four days [after pleading guilty and languishing 19 months in remand],” Mr. Phillips said. “A lot of people who pleaded guilty earlier and got sentences of four to six years are out now. The denial of bail creates an unequal bargaining position. Three of those denied bail had no criminal record whatsoever, and they were denied bail on the basis of a couple of street-level sales. When you charge a bunch of guys with Grade 8 education and who are living on welfare under this legislation, it’s very unfair.”
Spokesmen for the prosecution refused to be interviewed last week noting that the trial judge has warned the lawyers to curtail public comments about the case. And lawyers for the accused, including those for William Pangman, the 24-year-old alleged president of the Manitoba Warriors, said their clients could not be interviewed, given the “delicate” state of the present negotiations.
Earlier this month, Judge Krindle dismissed a defence motion that alleged that police conducted illegal searches and unlawfully questioned the accused during their lengthy undercover investigation.
But the judge has also ruled that a jury could not reasonably handle a trial of 13, and forced the Crown to break the group into two smaller trials.
“This whole prosecution happened for political reasons,” Mr. Phillips suggested. “There was an election coming and the previous government wanted to appear tough on gangs, gangs were perceived to be a problem in the city, and so the decision was made to prosecute.”
While the number of those being prosecuted has dwindle, and while the 35 were off the street, Winnipeg gangs continued to flourish. The New Democratic Party, when it was in Opposition, said 1,800 people in Winnipeg and another 500 in other parts of Manitoba belong to gangs. Last summer, police estimated that Winnipeg street gangs had 1,375 members.