POLITICS

Yukon judge apologizes to inmate who appeared naked on video from jail

12/03/2014 08:29 EST | Updated 02/02/2015 05:59 EST
WHITEHORSE - A Yukon Supreme Court judge has apologized for not being removed from a courtroom as soon as he realized an inmate was naked during a video appearance from jail.

Justice Leigh Gower's apology to Michael Nehass was prompted by a complaint by the man's father, Russ Nehass, who filed a complaint with the Canadian Judicial Council.

"I sincerely apologize to Mr. Nehass for the embarrassment I caused to him by not acting to improve the situation sooner," Gower is quoted as saying in a Nov. 18 letter from the council to Russ Nehass.

"I fully appreciate how he views this incident as an affront to his dignity."

In his complaint in July, Russ Nehass said his son was subjected to "inhumane and degrading public exposure" in January, when he appeared naked in court via video from the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

He said Gower and the lawyers who were present disregarded his son's dignity and human rights.

The complaint led to a review by Robert Pidgeon, the vice-chairman of the council's judicial conduct committee.

Nehass has been in custody for nearly three years, awaiting trial, and alleges he has spent two years in segregation, though the territorial Department of Justice denies that.

His father has also filed a complaint with the Yukon Human Rights Commission about his son's treatment at the jail.

According to the council's letter, signed by executive director Norman Sabourin, Nehass was scheduled to appear before the court via video conference at 10 a.m. on Jan. 22, but he refused to attend.

Gower was informed of that and was "concerned" about the various delays in Nehass's case. He was aware Nehass's fitness to stand trial may be an issue.

"Justice Gower felt a further non-appearance would result in more delays and would do nothing to advance the prospect of resolving Mr. Nehass's situation," the letter says. "So he asked that Nehass be brought to the jail's video conference room."

He was not visible on the screen in the courtroom until 10:09 a.m.

Until that time, Gower could hear Nehass yelling, but "was unable to ascertain what the situation was," the council's letter states.

When Nehass appeared, according to the court transcript, three guards in full riot gear were restraining him on the floor.

He requested that he be allowed to sit in a chair before the camera because he was having difficulty talking to the judge, saying his face was twisted into the floor.

Gower said that if the guards were comfortable managing him while he was in a standing position, perhaps they would allow that.

But Nehass objected: "I'm naked; how can I stand up with my naked body in front of a camera? I want to be sitting up in a chair so I can address the court ... ."

Gower asked the guards about their security concerns, and Nehass said, "Cover up my penis, man, cover up my penis, it'll be ... seen on camera," according to the transcript.

It was when Nehass sat down that the judge confirmed he was naked, at least from the waist up, the council's letter says.

The hearing proceeded, with Gower reading the charges Nehass was facing as an agitated and sometimes incomprehensible Nehass interrupted.

At 10:16 a.m., Gower was unable to proceed as Nehass angrily interjected, demanding his family be present. Gower then ordered that he be removed and the video link cut off.

Nehass was not visible below the waist at any time, according to the letter.

"Justice Gower recognizes that he ought to have removed Mr. Nehass from the room as soon as he confirmed that Mr. Nehass was in fact naked, and that he should have proceeded in his absence sooner," Sabourin writes in the letter.

Pidgeon, the investigating chief justice, "is satisfied that Justice Gower has learned from the experience," and believes Gower "acted in good faith with the intent to advance the matter and avoid delays that might be detrimental to Mr. Nehass."

It was not an ideal situation because the judge didn't have visual contact with Nehass immediately and had difficulties understanding him, Sabourin writes.

Nehass is still in custody. He appeared in court last week and pleaded guilty to five charges he faces in territorial court — breaching the jail, assaulting a correctional officer, uttering threats, and two counts of mischief.

The charges were laid during his time in custody.

Nehass said that although he doesn't agree with the Crown's version of events, he is willing to plead guilty to the offences.

He also faces charges in Supreme Court related to a 2011 alleged incident in Watson Lake. They include assault with a weapon, uttering threats, possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose, breaching probation, intimidation and forcible confinement.

Nehass said last week that he would plead not guilty. (Whitehorse Star)