NWT judge agrees to assist attorney to prevent further delays in Yellowknife murder trial

The NWT Courthouse in Yellowknife.  (Natalie Pressman/CBC - photo credit)

The NWT Courthouse in Yellowknife. (Natalie Pressman/CBC – photo credit)

A NWT Supreme Court Justice has signed an order to appoint another attorney to potentially help Devon Larabie represent himself in his murder trial later this year.

That’s if Larabie fires his current attorney before the trial.

Larabie is scheduled to stand trial on November 14 for second-degree murder in the death of Breanna Menacho, whose body was found in a Yellowknife apartment in May 2020.

Larabie’s current attorney is Michael Spratt, an Ottawa-based criminal defense attorney who also works in the Northwest Territories.

Spratt is the fourth public counsel to represent Larabie in this case. Larabie has fired three former attorneys appointed by Legal Aid NWT. He fired his third attorney, Scott Cowan, a week before his trial began last September.

Crown Prosecutor Blair McPherson argued in court on Friday that the appointment of a fifth counsel as a “friend of the court” would mean Larabie can represent himself if he fired Spratt before or during the trial, creating a further delay in proceedings similar to the one last would be avoided September.

A “court friend” (or Latin amicus curiae) is a lawyer appointed by the court to assist someone representing themselves in a trial. If Larabie keeps Spratt as his attorney until the end of the trial, the “friend of the court” will end up not attending the trial at all.

Spratt said he and his client had no objections to the motion and expressed that he saw no reason for his relationship with Larabie to break down.

A “nuanced” role

Judge Michel Gates also accepted the motion. He acknowledged that the appointment of an amicus was a rare move, but one he felt was appropriate in this case.

However, Gates also had many questions about what the process for appointing the new attorney would be and how much the appointed attorney would cover if Larabie represented himself.

“In my entire legal career, I’ve only once seen an amicus involved in a case,” Gates said.

McPherson said that in this case, in addition to providing legal advice to Larabie, the new attorney would be required to interview certain at-risk witnesses on Larabie’s behalf so that they would not be traumatized again.

McPherson said the question of how much an amicus can take on for a self-represented defendant is legally contentious, but believes an early ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada could help settle the issue.

Gates also had questions about how they would find an attorney qualified for the role.

“What we’re asking of someone here is very nuanced,” he said. “As you know, not all lawyers are the same.”

In the end, the prosecutor and judge, with Spratt’s help, decided that McPherson Legal Aid would ask NWT for a list of sufficiently experienced attorneys available for the trial. Gates will then choose one after consulting both McPherson and Spratt.

The NWT Department of Justice will pay for the new attorney.

Larabie disagrees with the order

However, Larabie was not happy with the decision. He spoke to the court via video conference on Friday to say he disagreed with the order.

“I feel like them [court]… denies me the right to defense counsel in the event that there should be a breakdown in the relationship between me and Mr. Spratt,” he said.

“If I have an argument that he’s not willing to make, I need an attorney to make that argument for me … I don’t know how to make an argument.”

Larabie tried to ask Gates if an amicus could help him bring up a particular argument he wanted to make at trial, but Spratt intervened and told him it wasn’t the right time to talk about the arguments, who they might be manufacturing.

Gates said he understands Larabie’s concerns but encouraged Larabie to focus on maintaining a good relationship with Spratt.

“It sounds like you’re telling me not to worry, but you are,” Larabie replied.

Gates also told Larabie that if he decides to fire Spratt, the Crown will likely require the trial to go ahead as planned.


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