On September 23, 2014, Jenna Lynne Marsden, my cousin, died in a Winnipeg hospital after being brutally beaten two days earlier by her common law husband, Erwin Spence.
Spence finally had his day in court on June 20. Jenna’s family had been told earlier that there would be no trial because a deal had made between Spence and the Crown.
Our family was promised they would be happy with the deal, so we went along with the court date because we felt the Crown had been acting in favor of the victim, my cousin, Jenna Lynne.
We patiently waited for June 20 to feel a sense of justice, and for some of us a final chance to look this killer in the eye before he was to go back to lock up.
Before the court date, the Crown met with our family and informed us the deal made with Spence was a mere nine years in prison. The deal went further to express that since Spence had already been behind bars since fall 2014, two years would be taken off his sentence, leaving my cousin’s killer to serve only seven more years.
Shocked and hurt, the family felt betrayed by the Crown as well as the deal. Many of us hustled last minute to submit victim impact statements expressing how the loss of our loved one effected each of our lives in the hope of swaying the judge to offer a harsher sentence.
Each family victim impact statement written was read in court with a total nine letters submitted. Family emailed back and forth with each other to make sure no testimony would be left out. I submitted a letter as I could not be there in person. My letter included how my life was traumatized after my cousin’s death, and how my work life and classes suffered deeply as a consequence of her brutal murder.
Other family members such as our granny, Jenna’s sisters and aunties read their statements and said the death of Jenna deeply impacted them as well. Letters stated relationships suffered, classes were failed, jobs were hurt, sleep was lost, lives were ruined and worst of all, Jenna’s babies were in a sense orphaned because dad killed mom and he was about to be locked away.
We shared about living our lives like zombies during this time of grief and hoped no one would have to endure as we have. Although not allowed to show emotion, our family felt there was hope with the judge and that he would be on our side.
During the readings, Spence kept his head down, stared at the floor and did not share any look of remorse. Court took a break for lunch after all victim impact statements concluded.
After lunch, court commenced for a final sentence.
The judge ruled and upheld the Crown’s deal in a nine year sentence with two years already served.
The case needed to meet manslaughter requirements of being brutal, violent, and intentional. The first two were proven, however, intent to murder could not be proven because Spence was intoxicated of his own volition.
Similar case law studies, with alcohol involved, had only 9-year sentences, which set precedent for the Crown’s deal with Spence. The maximum charge would have been 12 years if intent was proven – a number far from the initial 25-year sentence we expected after the police investigation ended.
The judge further stated that given the circumstances of both the victim and the murderer being aboriginal, leniency in sentencing could not be afforded. If the judge were able and willing to give a harsher sentence, the defense would have appealed, or if he gave a lesser charge, the Crown would have appealed.
Our family had hoped so much for the judge and Crown to be on our side – on Jenna’s side. We thought for once these institutions and positions of power could be on our side. We should have asked to go to trial. We couldn’t truly defend Jenna, who she was, in letters that were half whited out. (More on the reason for the cutting of our statements in moment.)
She was so loving, so caring, so funny and silly, a good cook, a great mom, and a good partner. We weren’t allowed to talk about the times Spence hurt her and hid the phone from her or didn’t allow her to use her own computer; or about the time she moved away from him and tried to be strong for her boys; or the times he tried to convince her to commit suicide; we could not even call him a monster out loud, even though it was the truth.
The horrific fact that he killed her in front of her babies was whited out in our victim impact statement because it could not be proven that they witnessed the act. Yet one of her sons knows what strangulation is.
All of the horror was left out, again, because intent could not be proven.
Intent could have been proven if the only witness we had, the killer’s sister, would have been forced to testify, but they let her slide through the cracks – just like alcoholism and domestic violence slide through the cracks. The Crown wasn’t aware of any of the horrors I just mentioned. When we brought it up, they didn’t care to know.
Our hope in the justice system was terribly misled. How can the Crown, the judge, and the justice system stand for us if ultimately they are products of colonization, which at the end of the day victimize us as indigenous people further? I was left to wonder: If our family was a different race, would we feel more justice given to us?
This entire process of losing our loved one so brutally and dealing with the court has victimized us all. As Anishinaabeg (the Ojibwe people) we shouldn’t have to feel like victims. We shouldn’t have to deal with symptoms of colonization like murder and alcoholism – a deciding factor in allowing a killer to serve a lenient sentence.
If we ever hope to see change, if we continue to hope no other families will have to say gigawaabaamin minawaa (“see you later” – our language has no word for goodbye) to their daughters, sisters, lovers, and mothers again, we have to end these cycles now.
Native women, leave your abusers.
Native women, love yourselves.
Native men, protect your women.
Native men, love your women.
The answer isn’t that simple, but it’s a start.
This letter was written with the help of my aunties, Sandra and Florence, and my cousin Amy. Chi miigwech.