The Supreme Court of Canada released its reasons today for upholding first-degree murder convictions against a man and his common-law wife in the death of his young daughter and elucidated on the meaning of “unlawful confinement” in parent-child relationships.
In R. v. Magoon, 2018 SCC 14, a unanimous Supreme Court dismissed the appeals of Spencer Lee Jordan and Marie-Eve Magoon, who were convicted of murder in the November 2011 death of Jordan’s six-year-old daughter, Meika, while she was in the couple’s care in their Calgary home.
Jordan and Magoon were charged with first-degree murder but convicted of second-degree murder at trial, as the trial judge was not satisfied that they had unlawfully confined Meika while inflicting the injuries on her. (Forcible confinement is an element of first-degree murder.) The Crown appealed the acquittal for first-degree murder, while Jordan and Magoon appealed their convictions for second-degree murder. The Court of Appeal of Alberta upgraded the conviction to first-degree murder, finding that the trial judge had applied “an unduly narrow definition of confinement in the case of children.”
For appeal purposes, first-degree murder and second-degree murder are treated as two distinct offences, the Supreme Court noted in its decision.
“Where an accused is charged with first degree murder but convicted of second degree murder, he or she has been acquitted of first degree murder,” Justices Rosalie Abella and Michael Moldaver wrote on behalf of a unanimous court. “In such a case, the accused may appeal the conviction for second degree murder, and the Crown may appeal the acquittal of first degree murder. The Court of Appeal of Alberta therefore had jurisdiction to hear the appeals by the Crown in the present cases.”
Meika Jordan had endured significant abuse in the days before she died, which her father and stepmother justified as discipline. Among other things, the child was deliberately burned, punched in the stomach with enough force to damage her internal organs and suffered several serious blows to her head. She was ordered to run up and down the stairs as a form of punishment, and beaten when Jordan and Magoon thought she was not complying with their orders. As a result of her injuries, Meika lost consciousness and died.
The SCC found that the Court of Appeal did not err in finding the couple guilty of first-degree murder and that the five elements of the applicable test as set out in in R. v. Harbottle,  3 S.C.R. 306, which are required for an accused to be convicted of first degree murder under s. 231(5) of the Criminal Code, were met.
With respect to the first element, unlawful confinement under s. 279(2) of the Criminal Code was established, the Supreme Court found, as the accused had coercively restrained Meika and directed her contrary to her wishes, “and the acts of discipline far exceeded any acceptable form of parenting.”
“The legal standard for proving unlawful confinement is the same for children as for adults, but in the case of a parent‑child relationship, courts must keep in mind that children are inherently vulnerable and dependent, and routinely receive — and expect — directions from their parents,” the court noted in its reasons. “The Crown does not have to prove some special or extreme form of confinement in cases involving parents and their children. A finding of confinement does not require evidence of a child being physically bound or locked up; it can also result from evidence of controlling conduct. Although parents are lawfully entitled to restrict the liberty of their children in accordance with the best interests of the child, if a parent engages in abusive or harmful conduct toward his or her child that surpasses any acceptable form of parenting, the lawfulness of his or her authority to confine the child ceases.”
Toronto criminal lawyer David Butt says that, in allowing the Crown’s motions to strike, the Supreme Court has been “thematically consistent” with prior decisions and a desire to actively manage its docket. “They’ve been aggressive and strong in this docket-management position by striking out passages of a notice of appeal.”
The Supreme Court has also taken an “appropriately expansive approach to child abuse cases,” he says, in looking at forcible confinement differently in the context of child-parent relationships. The court looked at disciplinary methods employed by the convicted couple, which amount to forcible confinement leading to first-degree murder, he told Legal Feeds. “What you have is an assertion that forms of child discipline, apart from corporal punishment, can be criminal acts.
“My position is that that is a sound development of the jurisprudence,” he says, and given the priority that must be paid to child welfare, “it is appropriate to impose obligations on people regarding their treatment of children."