04/28/2015 04:00 EDT | Updated 06/28/2015 05:59 EDT

Harley Lawrence Death Result Of 'Animalistic' Actions, Says Judge

KENTVILLE, N.S. - It is difficult to fathom the "animalistic" actions of two men who targeted one of society's most vulnerable when they burned a homeless man alive, a Nova Scotia judge said Tuesday as he sentenced them to life in prison for murder.

"The least among us are entitled to the same protection as the best," said Judge Gregory Warner as he delivered his sentence for the slaying of Harley Lawrence.

Daniel Wayne Surette, 27, and Kyle David James Fredericks, 26, pleaded guilty in February to second-degree murder in Lawrence's death. They faced automatic life sentences but their parole eligibility periods had to be determined.

Warner ordered Surette to serve 20 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole, while Fredericks will be able to apply for parole after serving 18 years.

Lawrence's death in the fall of 2013 shocked Berwick, a small community about 120 kilometres northwest of Halifax where the 62-year-old man had sought refuge in a bus shelter as temperatures dipped, local residents said.

As he slept in that bus shelter in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 2013, Lawrence was set alight.

"It's hard to imagine a more horrible death," Warner told the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Kentville.

"It's hard to imagine somebody so animalistic they would pour gas over somebody and watch it."

According to an agreed statement of facts, Surette bought $10 worth of gasoline while Fredericks pumped it into a plastic jug.

Surette poured the gas on Lawrence and either he or Fredericks had set him on fire with a cigarette lighter, the document says.

Surette later told an undercover police officer that he and Fredericks thought Lawrence was a police informant watching them deal drugs, the statement of facts says.

"It is clear that the pair had a prior animus against Harley Lawrence and thought him a 'rat' who could inform on them to the police; or perhaps that he was even a police officer," it says.

"The pair saw Lawrence sleeping in the bus shelter and made the determination to set him on fire."

Lawrence's charred body was found with his upper torso out of the bus shelter, an indication he tried to get out before he died, the statement of facts says.

An autopsy was conducted on Lawrence's remains a day after he died. It concluded his cause of death was from thermal and inhalation injury, indicating he died as a direct result of the fire.

At various points while Surette and Fredericks were under investigation, the two referred to Lawrence as a "bum."

Victim impact statements were submitted to the court, including one from Ron Lawrence, Harley's brother, who said he was in disbelief when he had heard how his brother died.

"It has changed my life forever and cannot be undone," Lawrence said.

"It was a tragic loss for me and my family and I will be dealing with this for the rest of my life."

Crown lawyer James Fyfe read a victim impact statement on behalf of Bob Lawrence, another brother of Harley's.

"Harley was homeless, but still was a human being ... and did not deserve this," Fyfe said.

In his decision, Warner adopted a joint sentencing recommendation from both the Crown and defence.

Fyfe said an aggravating factor in Surette's case was that he doused Lawrence with the gas and has a history of anti-social behaviour and criminal violence.

However, Fyfe pointed out that both men pleaded guilty, thereby avoiding a lengthy trial, and each wrote letters of apology to Lawrence's family.

Fredericks declined comment in court. Surette told the court he realizes his actions were harmful and he hopes his sentence brings closure to Lawrence's family.

"I feel horrible for what we've done," Surette said later outside court as he was led away.

Their sentencing came as a man in Winnipeg was charged Tuesday with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder in the deaths this month of three homeless men in that city.

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