Judge shakes accused's hand

A Penticton judge, so moved by a story of recovery, got up off the bench Friday to shake the hand of the young man he later spared from prison.

Jesse Birkedal, 25, received a suspended sentence and three years of probation for pleading guilty to two counts of break and enter and one count of possession of stolen property under $5,000 related to two separate incidents in 2017.

“I wish I had some sort of ability to — some sort of magic wand to transfer whatever motivated you to change to get a number of other people to step up and do the same thing here,” Judge Gregory Koturbash told Birkedal.

Court heard Birkedal attended drug and alcohol recovery while on out on bail — a program typically six months long — for 13 months. While there he completed community service far beyond what was expected and received glowing recommendations from his counsellors.

“A lot of people go through there and just take it for granted, and I think I got the best out of it that anybody could get,” Birkedal told the judge. “I just want to be a law abiding citizen, a father to my daughter that I’ve reconnected with, and I just want to do good.”

Birkedal was caught by police showering inside a broken-into home in Grand Forks in September 2017. Jewelry from a box inside the home was found inside Birkedal’s jacket in the washroom. He was also arrested downtown Penticton in August 2017 in possession of tools stolen from a local home.

Birkedal's criminal record was short in duration, but intense for the period that he was deep in the throes of addiction. 

“Putting Mr. Birkedal back into custody will not assist society in any respect,” defence lawyer Michael Patterson said, arguing Birkedal would have far fewer supports and greater access to drugs in prison than compared to his current arrangement that has him employed and living with his mother.

“My boss is an ex-physician, he’s also a drug and alcohol counsellor as well, the support I have right now — I don’t think it will ever get better,” Birkedal said, explaining he currently attends Narcotic Anonymous meetings and counselling regularly.

“There is obviously things that I will continually have to battle. It’s a battle that I’m not expected to win, but I’m a fighter, and I want to win so I just keep going every single day.”

After hearing Birkedal’s piece, Judge Koturbash strolled across the courtroom to shake his hand, spurring Birkedal’s mother seated in the gallery to burst into tears.

“Good job sir, it’s so extremely rare to hear stories like yours in this courtroom,” Koturbash said. “You ought not be proud of what you did when you were under the influence, but you deserve to be proud of where you are at now.”

“To send you to jail at this stage would be — it would put you steps backwards,” the judge added. “The best way to protect the community is to ensure that you stay on the path you are currently on.”

Koturbash suspended the passing of sentence, under the clause of the Criminal Code of “exceptional circumstances.”

“These are exceptional circumstances, because it's exceptional for me to get off the bench to shake a person’s hand,” Koturbash said.

Birkedal received three years of probation, with a stern warning that any additional convictions would not “generate the same sympathy again from the courts.”

During the first year of probation, Birkedal will be under a curfew. He was also ordered to participate in the restorative justice system, attend counselling as required and not own a firearm for 10 years. Crown counsel was seeking a 18 month jail sentence. 

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