The Supreme Court of Canada is slated to rule Friday on the sentencing of a man who went on a deadly shooting spree at a Quebec City mosque.
The decision in Alexandre Bissonnette's case will determine the constitutionality of a key provision on parole eligibility in multiple-murder convictions.
As a result, it will also reverberate far beyond the case before the court.
In March 2021, a judge found Alek Minassian guilty of 10 counts of first-degree murder, three years after he smashed into people with a van on a busy Toronto sidewalk. The judge decided to delay sentencing until after the Supreme Court decision.
At issue is the tension between society's denunciation of such horrific crimes and the notion of rehabilitation as a fundamental value in sentencing.
Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six charges of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder in the January 2017 mosque assault that took place just after evening prayers.
In 2019, Bissonnette successfully challenged a 2011 law that allowed a court, in the event of multiple murders, to impose a life sentence and parole ineligibility periods of 25 years to be served consecutively for each murder.
A judge found the provision unconstitutional but saw no need to declare it invalid and instead read in new wording that would allow a court to impose consecutive periods of less than 25 years.
Ultimately, the judge ruled Bissonnette must wait 40 years before applying for parole.
Quebec's Court of Appeal agreed that the sentencing provision violated Charter of Rights guarantees of life, liberty and security of the person, as well as freedom from cruel or unusual punishment.
"Parliament's response to the problem identified is so extreme as to be disproportionate to any legitimate government interest,'' the Appeal Court said.
"The judge was therefore right to conclude that the scope of the provision is clearly broader than necessary to achieve the objectives of denunciation and protection of the public.''
The Appeal Court, however, said the judge erred in making the ineligibility period 40 years.
It declared the sentencing provision constitutionally invalid and said the court must revert to the law as it stood before 2011, meaning the parole ineligibility periods are to be served concurrently — resulting in a total waiting period of 25 years in Bissonnette's case.
The Court of Appeal noted there is no guarantee the Parole Board would grant Bissonnette parole in 25 years.
"This will depend on the circumstances at the time, including the appellant's level of dangerousness, his potential for rehabilitation and the manner in which his personality has evolved,'' the court said.
"Furthermore, as with any parole, if it is granted, it will include the necessary conditions for adequately ensuring the security of the public, failing which it will not be granted.''