One of five charged in 2016 prison riot death pleads guilty

Sentencing adjourned to June 11.

This photo from the Correctional Investigator's report shows the aftermath of last year's deadly riot at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary.

One of five men charged in the beating death of a fellow inmate during 2016’s deadly riot at Saskatchewan Penitentiary has pleaded guilty to Manslaughter in what the Crown characterized as a “brutal” attack on a vulnerable victim.

Kelfort Watatech entered his guilty plea at Court of Queen’s Bench Thursday. Jason Leonard Bird was found unresponsive in the medium security unit of Saskatchewan Penitentiary at about 7:15 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2016, after a riot broke out at the federal prison in Prince Albert.

Watatech is currently serving a seven-year sentence for manslaughter set to expire in May of 2020.

Judge Labach has reserved his decision. He will deliver the verdict on June 11.

 According to Crown Prosecutor John Morrall, Bird was viciously beaten in his cell after he refused to participate in the riot.

Watatech’s lawyer agreed with the investigation’s report, though he denied that was his client’s intention. Rather, he said Watatech became involved in part because of the culture of the penitentiary, where violence and the fear of acts of evil are the norms.

Throughout the arguments, Watatech sat silently, leaning forward, his head bent so low that at times it hung below his shoulders.

He was dressed in a blue polo shirt and jeans, his collar flipped up at the back.

He only spoke when addressed by Labach. Even then, it was barely audible.

“I have nothing to say,” he said.

Morrall, who called for a ten-year sentence, characterized the attack as a situation where the victim is more vulnerable because of the chaos surrounding him, and the lack of guards or security cameras to come to his defence.

He likened the situation to that of a convenience store robbery, where multiple people can overpower a victim who has little chance of defending himself.

“This is a cowardly act,” he said, “and certainly an aggravating factor.”

He stressed that this wasn’t an accident, a manslaughter were someone died after being pushed or in a shallow stabbing with a butter knife.

“When you’re involved in a brutal beating, I submit that it is closer to murder, he said. “This was a significant beating. The appropriate sentence for this brutal gang manslaughter is ten years consecutive.”

Morrall clarified that he didn’t mean to imply the killing was gang-related. Rather, he said, the five inmates ganged up on Bird during the killing.

The defence lawyer argued for a seven-year sentence, making it clear that he and his client acknowledged the severity of the offence.

“No life is worth less just because they’re in the penitentiary,” he said.

“This was senseless. It was just in the course of mayhem in the riot.”

While two years have now passed since the incident, Watatech’s guilty plea should be considered an early plea. His lawyer only obtained the fie in August of last year. Watatech, he said, is the first to negotiate a resolution.

“The institutional setting is a violent place,” he said.

“That setting causes violence because of a survival reaction. I would suggest this guilty plea speaks volumes. He’s not saying he’s less guilty than anybody.”

The lawyer said that while he was obliged as an officer of the court to consider Gladue factors, his client wasn’t blaming this offence on his personal circumstances.

 “He’s been very clear on this. His position is he wants to take responsibility.”

Gladue factors, though, combined with the guilty plea, should reduce Watatech’s moral blameworthiness, his lawyer argued. He also argued that a mitigating factor is Watatech’s age. He was 25 when the offence was committed. He’s now 28.

Judge Labach, though, wasn’t convinced his age was a mitigating factor.

“For a young guy this is the second person he’s killed,” Labach said

“I‘m trying to recall if I’ve come across anyone who committed two homicides by age 25. Serving your entire adult life in custody doesn’t just happen. He added that over the last few years, Watatech would have received some programming in the penitentiary.

“It obviously didn’t have much of an effect. Rehabilitation seems like a pipe dream.”

Watatech’s lawyer pushed back.

“Has he had some opportunities? Yeah, he has. But when we apply the standards the Supreme Court has asked us to apply, (his circumstances were) harder to come through. He is a very young man. His ability to get through it was hampered by his environment. (The penitentiary) is not only a violent environment, it’s not conducive to improving oneself.”

Labach said that at some point, you have to say you’re not doing anything yourself to break out of the circumstances you’re in.

‘When do I get to that point?” he asked. (The Crown) says we’re at that point.”

“Actions speak louder than words,” Watatech’s lawyer responded, citing again the guilty plea. “At age 28, it’s not time yet.”

Victim’s mother speaks of life after son’s death

Thursday’s arguments also included a victim impact statement, read aloud in court by the victim’s mother, Evelyn Bird.

Shaking, she was helped up to the witness stand by Morrall. She took a moment to steady herself, letting out a heavy sigh.

“I love my some with all of my heart. I miss him every single day,” she said.

She acknowledged that her son lived a life of drugs, but that he loved his family and was working hard to get clean so he could spend time with his children and grandchildren.

He would send artwork he made to his family, including a beaded pendant Bird was wearing around her neck.

“Our family has already lost two daughters,” Bird said. “Jason’s sisters are with him. They are always with me.”

Bird said the family has suffered emotionally and physically with the loss.

“No mother should have to outlive her child,” she said. “His grandchildren will never meet their Mushum.”

Bird remembers her song as a “strong-willed, handsome warrior.

“Jason was a strong warrior right to the end,” she said.

At one point in her statement, she turned to Watatech.

“In order to move on in my life,” she said, “I have forgiven you for murdering my son.”

Watatech kept his head down. He did not look up to meet Bird’s gaze.

As Bird finished her statement, she grasped the amulet around her neck in her hands.

“Jason made this for me before he passed on,” she said.

“I’ll cherish it forever.”