Self-defence vs. ‘brutal killing:’ Lawyers give closing arguments in Vandewater case

Tyler Vandewater is escorted out of court on Jan. 27, 2020. Vandewater is accused of killing his cellmate Christopher Van Camp in 2017. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Justice Scherman reserves decision to Mar. 5

Warning: graphic content

Tyler Vandewater has maintained relatively still, staring straight forward from the prisoner’s box throughout his week and a half long murder trial in Prince Albert. On Wednesday, it was different.

The 31-year-old, dressed in blue jeans and a faded black and white sweater, often shrugged his shoulders up, bringing his head to his chest and frequently sipping his water during closing arguments.

Vandewater is charged with second-degree murder in the June 2017 death of his Saskatchewan Penitentiary cellmate, 37-year-old Christopher Van Camp.

The accused claims he was acting in self-defence, that a paranoid Van Camp lunged at him with his homemade blade before Vandewater pushed him back. The minute to minute and a half altercation turned fatal before he realized it, testified Vandewater.

According to Canada’s Department of Justice, there are three required elements for self-defence: “A reasonable perception of force or a threat of force against the accused or other person,” “A defensive purpose associated with the accused’s actions” and “The accused’s actions must be reasonable in the circumstances.”

Crown prosecutor Linh Lê said she has “concerns” about the first and second elements in Vandewater’s case, and the third is a “fail.” Defence Lawyer Brian Pfefferle, on the other hand, argues Vandewater responded appropriately in his circumstance.

Last week, Forensic Pathologist Shaun Ladham said Van Camp had 26 wounds to his face, which trailed down his neck to four punctures on his chest. He also had 25 stab wounds on his upper back.

Van Camp died of blood loss and suffered a collapsed lung. Vandewater was left with light scratches on his side.

Christopher Van Camp was 37 years old when he died in the Saskatchewan Penitentiary. Tyler Vandewater, 31, is charged with second-degree murder in his death. (Chris VanCamp/Facebook)

Pfefferle asked Justice Brian Scherman to consider Vandewater’s circumstances.

“We’ve got someone who’s literally locked in a cage with another human being,” he said. In this case, as Vandewater previously claimed, he’s in a situation where “your personal safety is always at risk.”

Vandewater and Van Camp lived in Sask. Pen’s C-Range, which Vandewater said primarily houses members of the Terror Squad gang and associates. If you give information to the guards, he said, you’re considered a “snitch” and could get stabbed wherever you go.

Pfefferle emphasized it doesn’t dismiss inmates from following the law, but Vandewater has “spent the better part of his life (in institutions) where violence is deemed to be prevalent.”

“He’s got scars on his body to prove (it),” said Pfefferle.

“He doesn’t choose to live like that—for survival.”

Vandewater, as court heard on Monday, faced six charges of assault since 2008.

Lê agreed that prison does present “unique problems,” but questioned the true nature of gang culture in Sask. Pen.

She said there were inconsistencies in Vandewater’s testimony.

At one point, Vandewater said a gang member will only get disciplined for being disrespectful. He said they’ll know what’s coming, that perpetrators can’t use weapons or hurt the person’s head.

“Then he says that anything can happen any minute of the day,” said Lê.

“Which is it?”

Both Lê and Scherman raised concerns about one particular aspect of Vandewater’s testimony—that an unknown inmate, who he’d only disclose as “Slim,” gave him permission to tell his story in court.

“Who else is telling him what to say, how to say it?” questioned Lê.

Because of Vandewater’s past offences, she also argued that “this is not someone who’s never been engaged in a fight.”

“He knows how weapons work,” she said.

Vandewater testified that he refused to let Van Camp get up during the altercation because “all it takes is one shot” to get killed.

“He said all it takes is one stab and he decided to give 63,” she said. The 26 wounds on Van Camp’s face, however, were not all from stabbings. Vandewater said he also “stomped” on his head.

Lê argued that Vandewater may have started acting in self-defence, but “it was his decision to finish the job.”

“Are we the court that allows the brutal killing of a cellmate when there are other options?” she questioned, including pressing the emergency button in the cell or passing a kite—a note—to a guard.

Pfefferle, however, argued Vandewater couldn’t have taken a break to pass a kite or hit the button when Van Camp was still in the cell with a weapon.

He said a lot of the evidence presented by witnesses, except for Vandewater, is unreliable.

“The only person who told what happened in that cell is the gentleman sitting behind me,” said Pfefferle.

“I’d suggest this is a case where an outright acquittal should follow.”

Justice Scherman is set to deliver his verdict at 10 a.m. on Mar. 5 at the Court of Queen’s Bench.