UPDATED: B.C. polygamous leaders sentenced to house arrest

Winston Blackmore and James Oler were found guilty of practicing polygamy last year

After nearly 27 years of investigations and court proceedings, two religious leaders associated with the polygamous community of Bountiful were sentenced to house arrest in Cranbrook Supreme Court.

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Winston Blackmore was conditionally sentenced to six months imprisonment to be served in the community followed by a 12-month probation.

Co-accused James Oler was also conditionally sentenced to three months imprisonment to be served in the community followed by 12 months probation.

Both are bound by house arrest, unless they are working at their jobs or grocery shopping, along with completing a number of hours of community service during the probationary period.

READ: Prosecution, defence spar over sentencing hearing for B.C. polygamist leader

Special prosecutor Peter Wilson had recommended six months for Blackmore, while defence had asked for a conditional or absolute discharge.

In both sentences, Justice Sheri Donegan determined that a conditional or absolute discharge would be inappropriate, before outlining her findings for both accused.

“The public interest requires a sentence that reflects the fundamental need to uphold the rule of law and one that gives proper consideration to the pressing objectives of denunciation and general deterrence in this case,” said Donegan. “Failing to do so would undermine the public’s trust in the administration of justice.”

The two were found guilty of practicing polygamy in July 2017, after Donegan rejected a constitutional challenge from Blackmore who argued for a stay of proceedings.

READ: B.C. judge rejects Winston Blackmore’s challenge of polygamy prosecution laws

Blair Suffredine, Blackmore’s lawyer, said the sentence was more than he anticipated.

“I was sort of expecting something more in the three-month range or potentially consideration of a discharge on perhaps a lengthly term, but all in all, I don’t think we’re really upset,” Suffredine said.

“We’re going to review it as people always do, but I don’t know if things will change after that.”

Blackmore and Oler each faced one count of polygamy after charges were approved by special prosecutor Peter Wilson in 2014. Blackmore’s indictment included practicing polygamy with 24 women, while Oler was charged with practicing polygamy with four women.

Blackmore is alleged to have 149 children, while Oler allegedly has 24.

Both were leaders of their respective fundamentalist groups, which split into two factions following a rift with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints in 2004.

It’s the end to a long series of police investigations and court battles stretching back to the early 1990s.

While polygamy was first investigated 27 years ago, charges were never pursued because Crown counsel believed a prosecution would fail under a defence of religious freedom, as polygamous marriages are a central tenet of the fundamentalist Mormon faith.

A landmark ruling in 2011 upheld the section of the Criminal Code that criminalizes polygamy after years of constitutional vagueness, paving the way for the current prosecution.

“In reaching her decision, Justice Donegan carefully balanced a number of factors, exercised restraint and leniency in dealing with this first instance of a modern-day polygamy conviction,” said Alisia Adams, a spokesperson for the B.C. Prosecution Service. “This is the first polygamy conviction in over 100 years in Canada and so the issues that the court had to address were novel and the circumstances of these particular offenders were unique.”

While Adams noted that the convictions and the sentences for both serve as a deterrent for anyone practicing polygamy in the future, it is unclear what will change — if anything — for Blackmore and his polygamous relationships going forward.

However, with regard to Oler, Donegan’s sentencing ruling noted that he has been living away from the Bountiful community for the last five years in near isolation.

Donegan noted there were aggravating factors to Blackmore’s case, such as marriages to nine girls who were between the ages of 15 years old and 17 years old.

“Mr. Blackmore expresses no remorse, only resentment at a system he believes has failed to protect, what he feels is his religious right,” Donegan said. “Although he reports no plans to marry again, there is a legitimate concern that he may continue to facilitate and support plural marriages of others.”

Donegan also noted Oler’s case also involved three marriages of girls between 15 years old to 17 years old.

“He does not feel remorse for his offence because he feels he did not know any other way of life and sees no harm or victims in his offence,” Donegan added.

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