03/20/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 05/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Teens who killed sleeping boy, 5, on Alberta reserve say they are sorry

WETASKIWIN, Alta. - Lawyers for three teens who shot at a house on an Alberta reserve, killing a five-year-old boy sleeping in his bed, argue their clients' tragic childhoods in a desolate community should be considered before punishment is handed out.

They told a sentencing hearing Wednesday that violence was a way of life on the Samson Cree First Nation, one of four reserves in the community Hobbema, about an hour's drive south of Edmonton.

All three came from homes filled with fighting, drinking and drugs. They were neglected and spent time in and out of foster care. Then they joined gangs.

Crown prosecutor Trent Wilson acknowledged the oldest youth in the case has talked about how he felt compelled to join a gang because violence was everywhere. But he said their sad childhood stories are no excuse for killing little Ethan Yellowbird.

"Not everybody who has a troubled background becomes a thug," he said. "These guys had choices."

Court has heard the three teens — 13, 16 and 17 at the time — were hanging out with one another one night in July 2011. They came up with a plan to walk to a nearby house and shoot it up.

The oldest teen fired one shot above the home, then passed on the gun to the two other boys and walked away. They each fired two bullets at the house. One passed through the wall above Ethan's mattress and struck him in the head.

Ethan's father, his girlfriend and their one-year-old child had all been sleeping in a bed next to Ethan. They woke up to screams and blood.

The teens picked up the shell casings outside, dropped them into a hat and ran off. They broke the rifle into two pieces and hid them outside near some tree stumps.

They were arrested six months later. In November, they pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

A motive for the shooting has not been revealed in court, but Ethan's family said they've heard enough rumours to believe it was a retaliatory attack — for what, they don't know.

On Wednesday, for the first time in court, the three teens stood up and spoke. They each repeated the same word: "Sorry."

"I'd like to apologize to the family we've hurt," said one of the boys, nodding towards Ethan's relatives sitting in the court. "I'd like to say sorry to you guys. Truly, I'm sorry."

The other two teens mumbled their words. Ethan's mother, Ashley Yellowbird, said outside court she was disappointed those two turned their backs on everyone in the courtroom as they were speaking.

She said she was surprised by the apologies but doesn't necessarily believe them. "They're the only ones who know if they're really sincere or not."

Provincial court Judge Geoff Ho said he needs time to consider the difficult case and will be ready to sentence the teens May 10.

The Crown asked that all three serve the maximum youth sentence for manslaughter — two years in custody followed by one year of supervision.

Wilson said the shooting was planned and deliberate. It was carried out in the dark of night and the teens should have known they would kill someone, he said.

"Justice requires there be a real penalty imposed."

The defence lawyers all asked for different sentences for their clients, ranging from six months in open custody to one year in a young offender's centre.

Laura Stevens, who represents the oldest youth, said it's tragic that violence, neglect and deprivation are so common for aboriginals growing up in Canada. She told the judge her client's troubled upbringing must be taken into account.

"How does a kid like that even have a chance?"

The boy — now 19 — fired a shot that didn't hit the house but takes responsibility for his actions that night, she said. It was his idea to target that home.

"He acknowledges it might never have happened if he hadn't gone."

The teen has a young son of his own now and understands the pain Ethan's family must be going through, Stevens said. She added he is done with the gang and wants a fresh start in Edmonton. He doesn't plan to ever go back to the reserve.

Glen Allen said his client, the youngest teen, also doesn't want to be in a gang anymore. But the judge noted bad behaviour by the teen while in custody. And corrections staff found gang writings in his room.

Allen said his client was just 13 when the shooting took place. His age and poor upbringing made him an "ideal candidate" for gang recruitment.

He said the teen realizes he will never be able to live on the reserve again. It's just not safe.

Ethan's grandmother, Debbie Buffalo, said the defence lawyers painted an inaccurate picture of the community. She said there are recreation programs and loving families. If the teens feel it's not safe, it's because of what they've done.

"A lot of people in the community are angry because a little boy got killed."