June 14th, 2024

Woman gets life sentence in murder trial

By Delon Shurtz - Lethbridge Herald on February 1, 2023.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDdshurtz@lethbridgeherald.com

A 28-year-old woman who wrapped a rope around the neck of her friend, then strangled her to death, has been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for at least 14 years.

Melissa Martens-Lagasse was sentenced Tuesday in Lethbridge Court of King’s Bench, where Justice Vaughan Hartigan said the brutal crime warranted a sentence that would not allow the offender to apply for parole any earlier.

Tuesday’s sentencing hearing was not to determine the length of prison term, since the minimum sentence for second-degree murder is life in prison. The Crown and defence argued, however, parole eligibility, which is available 10 years after a person is convicted of second-degree murder.

The Crown recommended parole eligibility after 14 years, while Calgary lawyer John Oman suggested something less than 14 years would be more appropriate.

The Crown and defence also argued the degree to which Gladue factors should influence the sentence. Gladue factors consider an indigenous person’s unique and often tragic circumstances and experiences to help determine a fit and fair sentence.

Circumstances include the challenges resulting from colonization of indigenous persons, as well as the impacts of racism, loss of language, removal from their land, residential schools and foster care. Such conditions typically lead to alcoholism, drug abuse, physical and sexual abuse, and high incarceration rates. Gladue factors often reduce an offender’s moral blameworthiness, which may result in a lower sentence.

Martens-Lagasse’s great, great grandmother on her father’s side was a full-blooded Cree. But any ties to indigenous roots were severed long before Martens-Lagasse was born, her mother, Amanda Martens, explained during Tuesday’s hearing. In fact, Martens’ father – who grew up as a mennonite, was placed in a residential school and became an abusive alcoholic – refused to acknowledge his aboriginal ancestry, and family members were forbidden to discuss it.

Martens admitted she became a “very heavy drinker,” when her daughter was only two years old. She fought constantly with her spouse, who left with Martens-Lagasse and her younger sister when they were still young children. The mother and daughter didn’t reconnect until seven years later.

As Martens-Lagasse grew up she began using drugs, had her first son when she was only 18, and was in a toxic relationship. She attempted suicide twice and was in a coma following one of the attempts. Eventually she moved to Kelowna, B.C., and when she and a friend, Megan Eekma, moved back to Alberta in November, 2021, her life took a drastic turn.

The two women were broke and had run out of gas by the time they reached Fort Macleod. While they waited for Martens to arrive from Medicine Hat to pick them up, Eekma fell asleep in the front seat of the car. Martens-Lagasse climbed into the back seat, put a rope around her friend’s neck, and pulled until she was dead. Then she piled a bunch of their belongings on top of the body and waited for her mother and boyfriend to arrive.

After they arrived and filled the car with gas, Martens-Lagasse drove west and dumped the body on the side of road 27 kilometres southeast of Pincher Creek, then she drove to Medicine Hat. The following day she told her mother what she had done and last April she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Oman told the judge the pattern of abuse and dependency on drugs and alcohol – typical Gladue factors – that began with Martens-Lagasse’s grandfather, continued down the family line, and directly impacted his client.

Crown Prosecutor Kristi Adams pointed out the Crown never objected to applying Gladue principles to the case, but had already factored them in when determining parole eligibility after 14 years. Adams noted, however, Martens-Lagasse has not tried to rehabilitate herself and has not shown any interest in connecting with her aboriginal heritage.

Adams stressed that Martens-Lagasse’s moral blameworthiness for killing Eekma and leaving her three small children without a mother, is at the highest level.

“They are left with no real explanation as to why this happened,” Adams said.

Hartigan also considered Gladue factors in his decision, but said he had to balance those with the terribly brutal circumstances of the crime. He said the nature and circumstances of the murder outweigh Martens-Lagasse’s unique circumstances.

He noted that while she is eligible to apply for parole after 14 years, she’s not guaranteed of getting it.

“She must convince the Parole Board of Canada that she no longer poses a risk to society.”

In addition to her sentence, Martens-Lagasse must also submit a sample of her DNA for the National DNA Data Bank, and she is prohibited from possessing weapons for the rest of her life.

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