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Crown and defence counsel are recommending the court impose a sentence of seven to 10 years for a mother who admitted to killing her two-year-old son in an alcohol-induced rage.
"Another young Indigenous person has died too young. His young siblings not only lost … a sibling but are losing the benefit of their mother’s company for a number of years. A cycle of despair has perpetuated within the family and the community," Crown attorney Ron Toews told the Brandon Court of Queen’s Bench on Wednesday afternoon.
"A sentence that holds Ms. Brandon accountable for ending the life of her own child can be healing to the community. It shows the community that the lives of their young are of value … future generations will judge this generation by how well we defend our children."
Jessica Melissa Brandon, 40, pleaded guilty to manslaughter on what was supposed to be the first day of a 10-day trial last September for her involvement in the death of her 28-month-old son, Draze Brandon-Catcheway.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 2015, Dakota Ojibway Police Service — as it was known as at the time — attended to Waywayseecappo First Nation after receiving a call for a well-being check on Draze, Toews said.
The family member reported receiving a call from Brandon, who told them "the baby wasn’t breathing," and immediately called police.
The officer who arrived on scene found Brandon standing in the doorway looking shook up and distraught and an unresponsive child laying on the couch.
He could hear gurgling sounds coming from the child’s throat, Toews said, and placed him in the recovery position while calling for EMS assistance.
"Draze remained unresponsive," Toews said. "He had a pulse, but his eyes were not responsive to light."
The officer noticed swollen contusions on the left side of the child’s forehead and right side of his head, as well as bruises on his right temple, elbow and upper thigh.
Brandon told the officer she had placed Draze on the couch to change his diaper and when she reached for a wipe, he rolled off and struck his head, Toews said.
Draze was taken to hospital in Russell and was ultimately transported by STARS Air Ambulance to the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, where he never regained consciousness.
An autopsy revealed the child died of an acute blunt force head injury, with hemorrhaging so significant he would have been symptomatic almost immediately, Toews said.
An expert in child abuse testified during the preliminary inquiry that one or two of the injuries could have been explained by an accident, Toews said, but due the number of injuries and the severity of them, it was his opinion the death was not accidental in nature.
"The injuries (the child abuse expert) observed could be expected after a motor vehicle collision," Toews said.
During a lengthy police investigation, Brandon changed her story and provided a number of different explanations for the child’s injuries, Toews said, telling police the toddler had been jumping on his bed and hit his head, or that he was involved in an accident while playing with his siblings.
But on the first day of her trial, Brandon admitted that after being sober for a couple of months, she purchased alcohol on the date in question and took at least five shots of hard alcohol before passing out.
When she woke up, Brandon said she found Draze jumping around and refusing to listen to her, so she "lost her s---," grabbed him and threw him onto the floor, Toews said.
Brandon said she remembered very little of what happened, but conceded that she struck him multiple times in the head area.
"We will never know the precise mechanisms of Draze’s injuries, although Ms. Brandon’s accepted version of events acknowledges multiple blows to the head and throwing him violently to the floor," Toews said.
"We can also say that with a high degree of scientific certainty that the violence inflicted on Draze was not trifling. It is with the same certainty that his death was not the result of a pre-existing weakness that a minor assault resulted in a catastrophic result."
When Brandon realized something was seriously wrong, Toews noted she didn’t immediately call an ambulance, but rather called the boy’s father, who was more than 150 kilometres away.
"When someone else summoned help for her, instead of using her time to help her son, the evidence gathered at the scene indicates that she used her time to cover her tracks. She hid the liquor bottle that she was drinking from, she concocted a fictional story to tell (police) — these are not the actions of a remorseful person," Toews said.
Since the offence, Toews said Brandon seems to lack the motivation to receive counselling and focuses more on getting prescriptions for managing her anxiety than learning techniques to manage it through counselling.
Toews also argued Brandon minimized her responsibility for the incident and showed limited remorse for such an aggravated and severe assault.
"This was not a one-punch, ‘hits his head on the pavement’ type of manslaughter," Toews said. "The victim was a child and he was in a position of dependancy to the perpetrator, Ms. Brandon. The Criminal Code explicitly emphasizes deterrence and denunciation as a primary sentencing consideration in that type of offence."
Defence lawyer Norm Sims argued that Brandon was remorseful for her actions, noting that people show remorse in different ways.
"This is a sad case and a sad day. … A little boy, who was two at the time, died unfortunately at the hands of his mother," Sims said. "It’s also sad that it’s affected the mother’s life and her family, her children. … (Brandon’s) life has also been changed forever, and she will continue to relive what happened regardless of what happens here today because she knows that unfortunately, she had a hand in her son’s death."
Brandon acknowledged that she had an addiction to alcohol and has taken steps to address it, Sims said, such as attending treatment, albeit sporadically.
Brandon also accepted responsibility for her actions by pleading guilty to the offence, Sims added.
When given the opportunity to speak, Brandon apologized to the court and to her family.
"I didn’t mean for my choices to get me to where I’m standing right now. My family knows who I am as a person, I’m a good, caring loving mother," Brandon said, wiping tears from her eyes. "I just want to say sorry, sorry to everybody. … I will get the help that I need."
CFS involvement unknown
Before the incident, Child and Family Services had returned Brandon’s children to her care.
Brandon realized she was not ready for all her children to return home at once, she said in her pre-sentence report, and that she was feeling overwhelmed.
Brandon asked the agency for support, she said in the report, but did not receive it.
Sims questioned why — when asked to provide information regarding Brandon’s involvement with CFS for the purpose of a pre-sentence report — West Region Child and Family Services declined to participate.
"I submit it’s because the agency failed to provide the accused, this mother, with the supports she needed to safely care for her children. The agency failed her, and it failed Draze," Sims said.
"The agency is afraid of the consequences of that failure and are hiding from it, because why else would you not provide the information to the probation officer about this lady’s involvement with them in a report for sentencing on manslaughter? It doesn’t make any sense."
Toews argued that Brandon’s attitude deflected moral blameworthiness and doesn’t fairly characterize what happened in the situation.
Brandon had several weekend-long visits with her children in the months leading up to their full return, Toews said, and would have known what challenges she would face having the kids on a full-time basis.
"Nonetheless, she continued to advocate and presumably petition for the return of her children, presumably believing and convincing CFS that she had the skills to look after the children and — I would suggest this is very critical — represented to CFS that she had her substance abuse issues under control," Toews said. "Latter events would tragically show that she did not have the coping skills or the substance abuse issues under control, and Draze paid for that with his life."
Crown and defence counsel jointly recommended Brandon receive a sentence of seven to 10 years in prison, with Toews suggesting a sentence closer to the 10-year mark, and Sims suggesting a sentence closer to seven.
Justice Scott Abel reserved his decision.
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