Raymond Taavel's family describe grief, devastation after beating death
Published Monday, February 22, 2016 8:01AM AST Last Updated Monday, February 22, 2016 8:33PM AST
HALIFAX -- The partner of a prominent gay rights activist beaten to death in Halifax four years ago said he collapsed in grief when police informed him of Raymond Taavel's death, and was in physical pain for months afterwards.
Darren Lewis's victim impact statement was read into the record Monday during a sentencing hearing for Andre Noel Denny in Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Denny pleaded guilty to manslaughter in November.
Lewis' statement, read by Crown attorney James Giacomantonio, described how Lewis crumpled to the floor when officers came to the apartment he shared with Taavel and told him his partner of 10 years was the victim of a homicide.
"In that very instant, my vision blurred, my chest tightened, my breath left me," Lewis said in the statement.
"All I could hear was my heart racing in my ears ... Any semblance of rational thought ceased as I struggled to breathe and tried to make myself wake up from the worst nightmare I had ever had."
Lewis described the physical pain he suffered and the "waves of numbing, desperate nothingness" in the months that followed. He said the intense sense of loss left him incapable of doing his job as a chef and feeling distant from his friends and family.
"Nothing made sense any longer ... I had thoughts of anger, vengeance and despair."
An agreed statement of facts says on the night of April 16, 2012, Denny failed to return to a Halifax-area forensic psychiatric facility after receiving a one-hour unescorted pass.
The statement says Denny was impaired by alcohol, cocaine and psychosis about seven hours later when he got into an argument with the 49-year-old outside a gay bar, punched him in the head and slammed his face into the pavement several times.
Taavel, well-known for his local and national work on gay rights issues, was pronounced dead a few hours later and Denny arrested soon afterward.
Giacomantonio is asking Judge Peter Rosinski to sentence Denny to a prison term between seven and 10 years.
Since Denny has been in custody for four years, he will receive six years credit for time served.
Crown lawyer Mark Heerema told the court that the "vicious and gratuitous" nature of Denny's actions was an sufficiently aggravating factor to justify the harsher sentence.
"Mr. Taavel was in the path of a storm that night," Heerema told the court, adding that Denny hit Taavel's head nine times during the assault.
Heerema said were it not for Denny's long battle with schizophrenia, which rendered him incapable of forming the intent to kill, the charge against him would have been second-degree murder. He said there were no facts before the court to suggest Denny's mental illness led him to attack Taavel.
Defence lawyer David Mahoney argued that judges have long taken the role of mental illness in a crime into consideration at sentencing.
"It's a mitigating factor. The courts don't want to imprison people who are mentally ill," Mahoney said outside court.
Mahoney said his client should be sentenced to between five and six years in prison, which equates with time served.
The judge reserved his decision until March 24.
During the hearing, Denny held an eagle feather and listened intently when three victim impact statements were read by Giacomantonio. Dressed in a black leather jacket and jeans, he did not display any emotion until he was asked if he wanted to address the court.
"I'm very remorseful for what happened that night," he said, adding that he was sorry for causing the Taavel family pain and suffering. "I apologize deeply."
In addition to Lewis' statement, Giacomantonio read statements from Taavel's brother, Andre, and employer, Barry Boyce of the former Shambhala Sun magazine.
"On the day we received the news of Raymond's homicide, a piece of us all died that day," Andre Taavel said in the statement. "I asked myself how such a hug-loving guy die in such a violent manner -- the opposite of what he stood for."
His statement also spoke about Denny, saying he felt nothing but "numbness and indifference."
"I couldn't care less about him. His act of evilness is overshadowed by the many stories of people whose lives were changed in a positive way after meeting Raymond."
A YouTube video shown at Taavel's funeral was played for the court, which included national and local media coverage of the crime and several interviews with Taavel's friends and colleagues.
The 2012 video also includes footage from the day hundreds of people gathered on Halifax's Gottingen Street to pay tribute to Taavel.