By Michael Swan
Canadian Catholic News
Orillia, ON (CCN)--Ontario Superior Court Judge Alf Stong is not particularly bothered by the front-page scolding he got from a Toronto Star columnist at the end of the Elaine Campione murder trial last month.
Stong, a deacon for the archdiocese of Toronto, was rebuked for repeating an unproven allegation of spousal abuse and suggesting Campione’s two children could still be alive had her husband not abused her. The Star’s Rosie DiManno called Stong’s sentencing address “a breathtaking rearrangement of the facts as the court heard them.” She accused Stong of besmirching the name of Leo Campione, whom she called a victim of the crime.
Barrie, Ont., mother Elaine Campione murdered her two daughters — 19-month-old Sophia and three-year-old Serena — in 2006. She wanted to prevent the transfer of custody to Leo, her ex-husband and the father of the girls. A jury found her guilty, dismissing her defence that she was suffering from a mental illness and should not be held criminally responsible. At trial she claimed she had been abused by her husband.
In his sentencing address, Stong had called the case “undeniably and inordinately tragic.” He went on to talk about the forces which may have driven Elaine Campione to commit such an evil act.
“If Ms. Campione had not been so abused, so used and discarded as a person, her two daughters could still be alive,” Stong said.
Though the law stipulated Campione had to be sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years, Stong seemed to want to soften the sentence by reminding the prison system of its obligation to provide “necessary psychiatric treatment and medical care while in their custody.”
“Stong extended to this vengefully embittered woman moral cover that all but made a mockery of the jury’s verdict,” said DiManno.
“I know what Rosie DiManno said, and it’s too bad she wasn’t there and heard all the evidence. That’s all I can say,” Stong told The Register two weeks later. “We had a 10-week trial. They (DiManno and Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford) showed up two days short of 10 weeks.”
Stong’s approach to sentencing Campione has everything to do with the judge’s basic values and core convictions formed in the Church.
Stong is not just a casually Catholic judge. He was ordained a deacon in 2000, leads marriage preparation courses with his wife Raymonde Marie at Guardian Angels parish in Orillia, and he has an overarching concern with the formation of young people, an area where the 71-year-old judge hopes to concentrate his ministry in coming years.
“I cannot separate myself from my values — my values, my beliefs, what I grew up believing,” Stong said.
It wasn’t just 10 weeks worth of evidence that convinced Stong there were deeper levels to Campione’s crime than the cartoonish image of a maniacally evil woman. However evil the act, Stong was determined to treat the murderess with dignity.
“She is in front of me for sentencing as a human being,” he said. “And I’m going to treat her as a human being. I’m not going to treat her as a statistic. I’m not going to treat her as an object of vengeance. That’s not what the law is about. The law is not about vengeance. The law is not about statistics.”
There’s nothing strange about values, religious or otherwise, entering into a judge’s thinking, said University of Toronto criminologist and sentencing expert Anthony Doob.
“Of course values generally enter into the sentencing process,” Doob wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “Every criminal lawyer knows that judges vary in their sentencing in part because judges hold different views about the various purposes of sentencing, and in large part because the Criminal Code doesn’t give much direction.”
Stong, a former Liberal MPP, said his approach is sanctioned by higher courts.
“The Court of Appeal has told us that punishment is not the foremost consideration in sentencing,” he said.
Even in a case as bleak as the Campione murders, Stong considers restorative justice. Restoring individuals and communities is the real purpose of a justice system. And it’s a basic Christian value, Stong said.
“You’re dealing with a human being. I come from the perspective that every human being is good,” he said. “I remember a sign at Queen of Apostles Retreat Centre that said, ‘God does not make junk.’ That’s always been in my mind when I am dealing with individuals who have done the most atrocious things in the world. What they’ve done is not right, but the individual is still in the image of God. That’s a value before me whenever I’m dealing with an individual in sentencing.”
Neither restorative justice nor the idea that every offender is an individual lines up very well with tough-on-crime politics or minimum sentences, said Stong.
“I’m not a real fan of minimum sentences, but they’re there and we have to impose them,” as he did in the case of Campione.
Faced with a situation where a minimum sentence law had the potential to deliver a mentally ill offender into a prison where there is no appropriate treatment, the judge isn’t so sure the law would stand.
“If we were faced with sending someone to a place where they would not be appropriately dealt with, then I would certainly entertain a challenge to that minimum sentence law,” said Stong.
Not every problem can be solved with a cut-and-dried application of the law. Stong sees paraded through his court the effects of family breakdown, widespread tolerance of violence and pornography and a culture of rage and me-first greed.
“It goes beyond the court. The courts don’t have all the answers,” he said. “But the courts have to speak out on these issues.”
If we want to fix the problems before they end up in prison we need to support families, he said.
“It’s a cliche to say the family is the backbone of the nation, but it is.”