The Sentencing Hearings of Andre Denny: Casting a Queer Eye. Part I

The Sentencing Hearings of Andre Denny: Casting a Queer Eye. Part I

By Hugo Dann

Background: Andre Noel Denny was being held for review at the East Coast Forensic Hospital, having been found Not Criminally Responsible for two previous offences due to mental illness. On April 16, 2012 he failed to return from a one-hour, unescorted smoking pass. While under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, Mr. Denny got into a violent altercation with Raymond Taavel and another man outside of Menz Bar, on Gottingen Street. Mr. Denny beat and kicked Raymond in the head, where he lay on the street; he then fled the scene. A driver passing by saw the body and called 911. Mr. Taavel was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. Mr. Denny was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. His trial was scheduled for September 2014, but was delayed when, for the second time, he fired his lawyer.

In November of last year, with a new defence attorney, Mr. Denny pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. Speaking in Mi’kmaq through a translator, he expressed remorse and apologized to Raymond Taavel’s family. Both Crown and the Defence came up with an agreed statement of facts in the case. They differed however on sentencing, which meant the case would still go before the Court. On January 25, the sentencing process began in a brief hearing before Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice, Peter Rosinski. Justice Rosinski heard what the Crown would present in evidence to support its request for a lengthy prison sentence. He also heard objections to some of the Crown’s evidence from the Defence. Justice Rosinski asked for additional information and said he would resolve the issues about evidence at the next hearing, set for February 22nd.

Intention: Before I begin, I want to make two things clear. Firstly, this is not an attempt at objective reporting. Raymond Taavel was my friend. In fact he was the first new friend I made when I moved back to Nova Scotia in April 2004. He was an inspiration for my getting involved, first with Wayves and later with Halifax Pride. We collaborated frequently, and almost as frequently clashed over how to advance the queer community in Nova Scotia. As his friend Barry Boyce said of him, “Raymond was a passionate activist, but without anger.”

Secondly, in a list of issues this trial raises, I have included homophobia and violence. I must make it absolutely clear that I am not mentioning these issues in connection with Andre Denny. I have spoken with people who know Mr. Denny, I fully accept their word that Mr. Denny is not himself homophobic. It is Society's homophobia that concerns me, the generations of permission that reside in the unconscious, the permission that Society still tacitly bestows to those in altercations with queer and trans people: to let go of all restraints with all too often deadly results. Until we address this sickness and its co-evils of racism and misogyny, we cannot hope to see the hatred and violence end.

For anyone wishing to read a mainstream media account of the hearing, you can’t do better than the report from CBC’s Blair Rhodes. It includes his twitter posts live from the Courtroom. In writing this account, I have frequently turned to his coverage to verify my experience of that day, for which I’m grateful to Mr. Rhodes. We are fortunate that CBC can still provide Novs Scotians with reliable information on a daily basis. You can find Mr. Rhodes’ story hereTrigger warning: Be advised that the details are at times graphic and disturbing.

Courtrooom 303

The morning of February 22 is brilliant with sunshine and a bright blue sky. But a stiff Nor'easter breeze reminds me it’s still winter. I have an hour’s walk to get to the Supreme Court building on Halifax’s Waterfront; a long time to question why I’m going to this hearing. I’m conflicted about the process, about the slow-as-molasses pace of the system. I question whether a court of law is even remotely the right place to address this complex case, with its intertwining issues of mental health, substance use, colonialism, racism, homophobia and violence. Yet somehow it seems important to be there, to be a witness for my friend.

Courtroom 303 has seen better days. There are stains on the wall coverings; the only formal decorations are the limp flags of Canada and Nova Scotia, flanking the raised dais of the judge’s seat. Nothing relieves the concrete tedium of its high walls and bleak fluorescent lighting. The public benches appear to have been designed for the Spanish Inquisition. A backside punishing hour on their unyieldng boards and I’m ready to confess to anything.

Yet there is an undeniable air of probity, even of grandeur, in the function of the Court, the formulaic address of the lawyers (“my learned friend, my friend the Crown”) and the grave but cordial conduct of the judge in his scarlet robes.

I’m late in arriving at the proceedings; Court has been in session for about 20 minutes. As I later find, Defence Counsel David Mahoney has been arguing with the Crown over the evidence, including some of the wording in the Victim Impact Statements. Throughout the day, our country’s adversarial justice system will be on full display, each side scrambling to secure any scrap of advantage.

The Defence had objected that some language (“evilness; murder”) in the statement from Raymond’s brother, Andre Taavel, might be prejudicial to Mr. Denny. The word “murder” gets changed to “homicide” to accord with the guilty plea to manslaughter entered by Mr. Denny in November.

I arrive as Crown Attorney James Giacomantonio is introducing the rest of the evidence: expert reports from psychiatrists and medical examiners; the impact statements; two videos; 14 pieces in all, and the updated Agreed Statement of Facts submitted and signed off on by both teams, Crown and Defence. You can read an edited version here.

There’s some back and forth going on between the judge and the lawyers as I take my seat and try to get my bearings. The public benches, while not exactly packed, are full enough. There is a large contingent, a dozen or more, of Andre Denny’s family and support network, including Elders of the Mi’kmaq Community. I recognize a number of media people.

On the opposite side from where I’m sitting I catch the eye of my friend Patrick Daigle sitting with Raymond’s partner, Darren Lewis. We seem to be the only representatives of the Queer Community present, at least the only ones I recognize. There does not appear to be anyone from the East Coast Forensic Hospital present.

On a bench outside the public area, near his defence team, Andre Denny is also sitting across from me, flanked by his interpreter and a Sherrif, I find it hard to look at him, but that reluctance will diminish as the day wears on. He’s wearing a brown leather winter jacket and holding an eagle feather.

Menz Bar Security Video

The Crown introduces the first video, a security tape from Menz Bar. From where I’m sitting I can’t see the large screen that’s been set up, but it’s clear that we’ll be shown the closing (carefree?) moments of Raymond’s life.

The video is about 18 minutes long. The Judge questions whether the entire video needs to be played, given that Mr. Denny does not enter the bar until 10 minutes into the tape. The video is played from the beginning. I’m grateful that I can’t see the screen. I can feel the intense focus in the room. I look at the floor. The Court is hushed, watching. I look up past the attorneys’ tables at Justice Rosinski. His expression reveals nothing, yet somehow I feel that he is fully aware of the poignancy of what he’s seeing. As I look down, I realize I’m looking right over Crown Attorney Giacomantonio’s shoulder at his laptop where the video is playing. Like a moth to a flame, I can’t not look. I can make out the fashing lights on the Menz Bar dance floor, the effect is ghostly.

Defence Attorney David Mahoney stands and in a quiet voice identifies the people in the bar, the bartender, Raymond —“in a white shirt” and the three other people sitting at the end of the bar with him. His white shirt flickers like a candle. David Mahoney’s gentle, occasional narration barely pierces the hush. Andre Denny has entered the bar. One of the men Raymond is sitting with apparently falls down. Andre Denny assists him. Shortly after that, Mr Denny apparently leaves, as do two of the other men.

Then suddenly that flickering white shirt is moving; up onto the dance floor with his remaining friend. His arms lift jerkily as he swaps sides, overarm, with his dance partner. There is no There is no questioning the identity of that gangling, long armed dancer. It’s Raymond, as so many of us have so often seen him, exuberant, joyful, dancing. It takes my breath away.

The video is stopped. The Judge suggests that this would be a good moment to take a break, and there is a15 minute recess. I join up with Darren and Patrick as we head outside to grab a breath of air. It’s good to have a friend to talk to. Patrick came down this morning specifically to support Darren, who’s been at most (if not all) court sessions since Andre Denny was charged.

As we head back into the courtroom I grab my bag to sit with Patrick and Darren. This puts me about ten feet from Andre Denny. We all rise as Judge Rosinski reenters the Court.

Victim Impact

Mr. Giacomantonio stands to read the victim impact statements into the record, the first from Barry Boyce. Mr. Giacomantonio reads clearly and simply, without over-stressing the necessarily emotional statements.

In addition to being Raymond’s friend, Mr. Boyce was also his boss at Shambhala Sun Magazine. He describes the “dark cloud” that descended on the small closely-knit staff with the loss of “everyone’s happy go-lucky uncle.” He related that for months staff would avoid Raymond’s office space; that it was only after knocking down a wall and re-purposing the area that they were able to use the space. He also cited the economic stress that losing such a key member of their team put on the magazine.

The second statement is from Raymond’s brother, Andre Taavel. He writesof a family still deep in grief, struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible. His elderly mother, his sister, and his own teenage daughter are all deeply affected. “A piece of us died that day.” When he writes of Raymond’s death, his own raw pain is exposed. “How could such a hug-loving guy die such a violent death?” When he mentions Andre Denny he says he feels nothing, “numbness, indifference.”

Yet for all his hurt, his statement still reveals things about Raymond I didn’t know, such as the closeness between Raymond and his sister, and the loving uncle who would sketch lighthouses, and ships in Halifax Harbour, mailing them to his neice in Northern Ontario, sharing his love of Nova Scotia. It’s good to hear these things.

Before he reads the final impact statement from Darren Lewis, Mr. Giacomantonio introduces a video to demonstrate Raymond’s impact on the LGBTQ community. It shows clips of the rally in front of Menz Bar the day of his death along with national media coverage and interviews. This video was played at Raymond’s memorial service and is available on YouTube.

It’s tough for our three-man queer contingent to hold things together, each of us deep in our own memories of that long, long day, — nearly four years ago now. The Courtroom is well equipped with boxes of Kleenex, but not in our row. A male and female couple in the rowahead of us, part of Mr. Denny’s supporters, pass us a box. Patrick hands out the tissues. Later, when the court adjourns for lunch, they’ll politely offer us their hands, saying, “Sorry for your loss.”

Now Mr. Giacomantonio stands to read Darren’s statement. Darren sits quietly on the bench. His words take us from the moment his business partner and two policemen arrived at their apartment and told him Raymond was dead. He describes having no memory of the days that followed, of a nightmare continuing for months, and a trauma that returned with drafting his impact statement. He writes of having to go through all of Raymond’s things, “way too soon,” and how, within a few months, with Raymond’s share of the rent no longer coming in, he had to leave the home they’d shared for a decade.

Darren also adds new dimension to my knowledge of Raymond. He paints a word portrait of two men whose love for each other was rooted in respect, understanding, honesty and unbreakable friendship. They were drawing closer to each other again and talking about buying a house together.

Darren’s statement was the hardest part of the hearing for me, but also the most beautiful. Nor can I help but feel it was also the most queer and affirming moment in this whole judicial process so far. As brief as the statement was, it stands as a clear and defining portrait of same sex love; a public declaration of enduring commitment between two men that lies both outside and within conventional notions of coupledom. Nothing is perfect in this ever-changing universe, but there can be no question that these two men were present for each other as strong and enduring supports, a marriage of true minds.

This is the first of a series of articles dealing with the sentencing of Andre Denny for the homicide of Raymond Taavel and other related issues. Part II of this is online now, you can read it here.

Justice Rosinski will hand down his sentence on Thursday, March 24, 2016.


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