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As a sheriff slapped handcuffs on convicted gay basher Shawn Woodward and led him away to begin serving a six-year sentence, members of Vancouver's gay community, who had packed the small courtroom, embraced each other, their faces wreathed in broad smiles of relief.

The harsh punishment for Mr. Woodward's aggravated assault against a gay pub patron was meted out Monday, after Provincial Court Judge Jocelyn Palmer concluded the attack was a hate crime.

"I see no possibility for Mr. Woodward's abhorrent behaviour, other than virulent homophobia," Judge Palmer concluded, noting that motivation was a key factor in determining his sentence.

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Outside the courthouse, activists expressed hope that the court's ruling would send a strong message to would-be assailants of gays to think twice about it in a city that has been called the gay-bashing capital of Canada.

"We have to make sure such crimes are a thing of the past, so we don't have to gather here again," said an emotional Janine Fuller, manager of Little Sister's Bookstore. "The ruling that this was a hate crime is hugely important."

Jennifer Breakspear, executive director of Qmunity, a "queer resource centre," referred to a number of serious, violent attacks against gay men in the last few years.

"It's been rough going," Ms. Breakspear said, "but I believe this sentence sends a strong message that hate and violence against our community will not be tolerated by the criminal justice system.

"Authorities are taking these crimes seriously, and our hope is that people may now be deterred from attacking us."

Mr. Woodward, a 37-year old construction labourer, was charged last year, after knocking Ritch Dowrey, 62, unconscious with a single, vicious, sucker punch. The incident took place at the Fountainhead Pub, in the heart of the city's thriving, West End gay neighbourhood.

Trial evidence indicated that Mr. Dowrey, who had been celebrating his retirement, briefly placed his hand on Mr. Woodward's shoulder and offered to buy him a drink.

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After punching Mr. Dowrey, Mr. Woodward stepped over the victim and left the pub, where he was apprehended by other patrons. He repeatedly told those holding him that he was not a "faggot" and that Mr. Dowrey, "a fag", deserved what happened to him.

The victim suffered serious brain damage from the attack, and will need extended care for the rest of his life.

In handing down the sentence, Judge Palmer cited the tragedy of Mr. Dowrey's fate "on a day he we was celebrating retirement. All his future plans were cancelled by a single punch."

She called Mr. Woodward "a man of flawed character, who has yet to express any remorse for or acknowledge the catastrophic harm done to Mr. Dowrey and his family [he has two daughters]"

The judge said Mr. Woodward pointedly went around the pool table to punch Mr. Dowrey, before heading out the door, when he could have left without going near him.

"There was no contact, no provocation. There was absolutely no opportunity for the victim to defend himself .... What he did showed his utter disregard for Mr. Dowrey's humanity."

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The Criminal Code provides extra punishment for so-called hate crimes found to be motivated by a victim's sexual orientation.

At the same time as they hailed Judge Palmer's decision, supporters of Mr. Dowrey tempered their joy with compassion for his plight.

Lindsay Wincherauk, one of those who confined Mr. Woodward after the attack, recalled how "super happy" Mr. Dowrey was, just moments before being knocked out.

"He was such a good guy. He knew everyone," Mr. Wincherauk told reporters. "Now, he has no recollection of today, no recollection of yesterday, no recollection of the years before.

"When you visit him, he's happy to see you, but he's not the same person. As the judge said, it's as if he died that day."

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