Suggesting he feared for his client’s safety, a lawyer is asking a Sudbury judge to sentence in secret a man caught in a massive drug bust a year and a half ago.
Denis Michel is also asking Ontario Court Justice Randall Lalande to keep secret the reasons he wants the closed sentencing for Keith Earle.
The request is an extremely unusual one and runs counter to a principle in Canadian law that courts be open to the public and the media.
Michel, however, said his demand for a closed sentencing hearing was firm.
“I already spoke to (federal prosecutor Michael) Jones,” he told Justice Lalande. “If we go with the sentencing hearing (in open court), the submissions will be zero.
“The defence and Mr. Earle will have zero submissions to make to the court … for (his) personal safety. That’s all I can say.”
Earle, 33, and a father of five, was charged as part of Project Skylark, a province-wide police initiative that targeted biker gangs and drug trafficking in three Ontario communities, including Sudbury.
According to a report by the St. Catharines Standard in 2019 when he was arrested, Earle is a member of the Red Devils, but in 2013 was a member of the Black Pistons, a gang controlled by the Outlaws, once a major rival to the Hells Angels.
Fifteen people, including Earlie and six suspects from Greater Sudbury, were arrested on Aug. 6, 2019, following raids on Aug. 1.
Earle, who is from Niagara Falls, was arrested in Sudbury. All those charged because of Project Skylark are being dealt with at the Sudbury Courthouse. Several have already entered guilty pleas and received lengthy jail terms, while others are still before the courts.
On March 24, 2020, Earle pleaded guilty to methamphetamine trafficking, cocaine trafficking, possession of proceeds of crime over $5,000, and human trafficking.
Earle was released from custody pending sentencing, which was to take place in September 2020. Michel ordered a Gladue report, which assists a judge with sentencing options for people of First Nation heritage.
Earle’s freedom did not last long, as he went back into custody on Aug. 6.
The Sept. 2 sentencing hearing did not happen and sentencing was rescheduled to Jan. 5.
But when on Jan. 5, the court learned that due to a mix-up, the Gladue report had not been prepared. A new sentencing date of March 24 was then set.
On Wednesday, the court heard the writer of the Gladue report could not establish an Indigenous link in Earle’s life that would connect him to such things as residential schools and intergenerational trauma.
Consequently, no report was prepared.
That did not sit well with Michel, who told Ontario Court Justice Randall Lalande that a pre-sentence report should now be prepared so the court can learn more about Earle and his life.
Michel then told Lalande he wanted Earle’s sentencing hearing to be closed to the public and media. He also asked for a judicial pre-trial meeting – a closed-door meeting involving the Crown, Michel as defence counsel, and Justice Lalande – before the sentencing hearing.
Michel said he wanted to talk privately about why he wanted the closed sentencing hearing.
He said having a closed sentencing hearing would not change the fact Earle is going to jail for some time.
“It’s not like (Earle) is going anywhere,” said the lawyer. “We are not going to be asking for a time-served penalty. We will be seeking a sentence of six, seven years minus his dead time (referring to his time in jail waiting to be sentenced).”
The court has heard Jones, the prosecutor, will be seeking a 10-year penitentiary sentence.
Earle is in custody at the Niagara Detention Centre in Thorold and appeared in Sudbury court via telephone link.
The four charges Earle pleaded a year ago are among 44 he is facing.
Jones told the court he had no issue ordering a pre-sentence report as it is an “important tool” in sentencing.
“Sentencing must proceed on the next date,” he said.
Should Justice Lalande close the sentencing hearing to the public and media, The Sudbury Star will consider filing an injunction opposing the measure.
Assistant Crown attorney Jen Mongeau said it was time to proceed with sentencing.
“There is an issue with delay from the Crown’s perspective,” she said. “We are dealing with victims, victims of human trafficking charges. This matter should be dealt with in a proficient manner. It’s very unfortunate we are looking at another adjournment.”
Justice Lalande told Michel he did not like the request for a closed hearing.
“This court can’t just shut down the court to the public at large,” he said. “It’s a difficult step to shut down the court to the public at large.”
Jones echoed those statements.
“I agree with your honour about the right of the public to come to court, seeing justice done, the sentences imposed, and hearing what’s been requested in the Crown submissions and defence submissions in full,” he said.
Late Thursday, a judicial pre-trial meeting date of April 26 was set, as was a date of June 9 for Earle’s sentencing hearing.
The court has heard that in the summer of 2018, Niagara Regional Police, Greater Sudbury Police, and the Ontario Provincial Police started a joint investigation into a cocaine trafficking ring that operated across Ontario, including Greater Sudbury.
Dubbed Project Skylark, the initiative investigated members and associates of the Hells Angels Nomads, the Red Devils Motorcycle Club, and the Hooligans Motorcycle Club who were associated with the trafficking of cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl in the Niagara Region, Greater Sudbury and Ottawa.
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On Aug. 1, 2019, search warrants were executed across the province, including five at locations in Greater Sudbury.
Police in Greater Sudbury seized about $420,000 worth of drugs, including methamphetamine, fentanyl, cocaine, and shatter. Five handguns, three long guns, and $50,000 in cash were also seized.