In the end, the judge was torn. He'd never seen a case like this, he said. He'd never heard so many victim-impact statements, and wept when he did. Four young men were dead, a fifth was forever injured and now the fate of a sixth – the guilty driver – rested in his court's hands.
The prosecution and defence had, on Tuesday, jointly asked Mr. Justice W.A. Tilleman to sentence Brenden Holubowich, 23, to three years in prison, after the young man admitted he drank, drove, sped and hit a car carrying the five other boys about 16 months earlier.
After "grappling" with the case Tuesday evening, the judge agreed with the sentence, but only after denouncing the crime, pausing occasionally to reach for tissue and suggesting he would prefer a harsher penalty.
One one hand, he had the unfathomable loss, the heartbroken families seeking a punitive sentence, the senseless act and the wide-ranging impacts. On the other, he had a joint recommendation and what he saw as a remorseful young man with no prior record.
Because, however, he found the three-year recommendation within the range of similar cases, he said case law barred him from overruling it.
"In other words, I'm constrained. … Even with my struggles and strong denunciation of this crime, I accept the joint submission," he said, eventually concluding: "Drinking and driving is sad, senseless, stupid and selfish."
As he spoke, heads shook and tears flowed from the family members of Matthew Deller, 16; Vincent Stover, 16; Tanner Hildebrand, 15; and Walter Borden-Wilkins, 15, all of whom died in the crash on Oct. 21, 2011. Zach Judd, now 17, was injured. The boys were football players at the small city's lone public high school. After the crash, well wishes poured in from across Canada as the school and team mourned.
Mr. Judd left court angrily after Wednesday's sentencing. "I don't even know what to say. The courts just failed us, completely," said his mother, Desiree Judd. "They failed the boys, they failed Zach."
Leon Deller, Matthew's father, said the "justice system is just a joke." Vincent's mother, Jenny Wilson, had hoped for a sentence of at least four years, one for each boy who died. "Nothing's ever going to change unless someone makes an example of somebody. It's too much to hope for," she said.
Mr. Holubowich pleaded guilty to five dangerous-driving charges, while 11 others, nearly all for impaired driving, were dropped. This was, in part, because of a major hole in the Crown's case – Mr. Holubowich fled the scene of the crash and was arrested an hour later. That unaccounted hour – combined with a witness statement that he had not appeared intoxicated before the crash – left the Crown with an uphill battle to prove criminal impairment, even though Mr. Holubowich admitted to drinking.
"That obviously played a role in whether or not the Crown would have been able to prove those charges," prosecutor Jason Neustaeter said outside court, adding: "There was never going to be anything that happened in the courtroom that was going to be able to repair anything that was caused by this."
Court heard that in other cases, sentences ranged from six months to, for repeat offenders, eight years. The judge said Wednesday anything more than four years for Mr. Holubowich wouldn't be on par for a first offence.
"There's no question, this is the most difficult case I've faced as a judge," Judge Tilleman said.
The families now hope to advocate for harsher sentencing guidelines, while Tanner's mother, Connie Hildebrand-Strong, will focus on pressing the parole board not to release Mr. Holubowich early. "That's our only thing," she said.
After court ended, Mr. Holubowich's mother, Teresa Bateman, read a tearful statement to reporters, apologizing to the other families for what she repeatedly called an "accident."
"We cannot imagine the loss or the grief you've experienced," she said. "And no matter how much we might pray, hope or wish that it isn't so, this tragedy can never be reversed. And for this, we are sorry."
But forgiveness remains out of reach for many. "I don't feel forgiveness. I'm sorry. I'm trying, I really am," said Holly Borden, Walter's mother. "I used to be all full of forgiveness, until all of this happened."