Brianna Michelle Watler was sentenced on Thursday to four and a half years imprisonment for causing the death of her boyfriend, Azzan Sherieff, on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.
She was initially charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter in February and the Crown accepted her basis of plea.
The incident leading to the death of Mr. Sherieff, 23, occurred at the apartment they shared off Frank Sound Road.
Justice Carlisle Greaves passed sentence after hearing the facts of the case from Director of Public Prosecutions Cheryll Richards and mitigation from attorney Ben Tonner.
The judge said that, from all he had read and heard, the couple’s relationship had been tumultuous and acrimonious. There had been arguments and physical fights between them.
He pointed to a basic principle of law — when there is evidence from the defendant that is the only evidence tending to explain events as they occurred in a particular incident, the court must sentence on the basis of that version. The court could not speculate, even though others might speculate as to what might have occurred, he said.
In this case, there were no witnesses to what happened, but photographs and physical evidence did support Ms. Watler’s account, the judge noted.
On the day of the incident, she and Mr. Sherieff had gone to Rum Point with friends. There was some drinking. She said even at that point she saw some sign of jealousy on his part.
When they arrived home, shortly before 5 p.m., there was some quarreling, which resulted in fighting. Ms. Watler said, and the judge accepted, that Mr. Sherieff was angrier than she had ever seen him before.
There was a physical encounter in which she received bruises and swellings to various parts of her body. Physical evidence supported her story: she reported taking refuge in the bathroom and Mr. Sherieff breaking the door down. Investigators found the door broken.
Ms. Watler said she got him calmed down by saying she would prepare their dinner. She went to the sink in the kitchen to do so and there were photos of pieces of chicken in the sink.
She said it was at that point that she heard or felt him approach her from behind and she reacted to that as well as to what he was saying. She spun around with the knife in her hand and that was when he was stabbed.
Ms. Richards earlier told the court that the pathologist’s examination showed a single stab wound to the left upper chest, front to back, left to right and downward, penetrating the lung and aorta, the largest artery of the heart.
Justice Greaves emphasized that there was no second stabbing motion — only the one that had caused the fatal injuries. This was important, he said, in determining the level of Ms. Watler’s culpability.
He said that, after Mr. Sherieff got the better of her in the physical encounter, it was reasonable to think she may have expected further violence against her. In the judge’s view, she had reacted spontaneously. There was no time to think, no time to plan. There was no evidence she took up the knife; the evidence suggested that she already had it in her hand to cut up the chicken.
In his view, the evidence did not support any maliciousness or gross negligence on her part.
“It appears to me to be more akin to an accident…. a very unfortunate occurrence,” he said.
Ms. Richards cited circumstances she said were aggravating. The knife was found outside the apartment and there was no blood on it, indicating that it had been cleaned. It would have been expected that Ms. Watler’s clothing would have had Mr. Sherieff’s blood on it, but first responders did not see any, indicating that she had changed her clothes. Ms. Richards suggested a starting point for sentencing in the range of 10 to 12 years.
A victim impact statement said that Mr. Sherieff’s family had not been able to come to terms with his death. Despite their grief though, they suggested Ms. Watler receive some intervention treatment relative to her use of alcohol.
Mr. Sherieff said the couple used to get into arguments. After his son died, he couldn’t eat or sleep. Sometimes he just sat down and looked at his pictures and cried.
Other witnesses commenting on the couple said it appeared there were various assaults against each other from time to time.
Mr. Tonner said Ms. Watler wanted to express in the presence of his family members and her family members how deeply and desperately sorry she was. She said that, if she could go back in time and stop it, she would. If she could replace him with herself, she would. She had loved him and was genuinely remorseful, the attorney reported. Ms. Watler was 25 at the time of the incident.
When it happened, she had not sought to arm herself, as the knife was already in her hand. When he staggered and fell, she thought he hit his head on the floor. She called 911, reported that he wasn’t breathing, and tried to administer CPR while waiting. When the emergency medical technicians arrived, she was crying and in shock.
“She is still in shock to a certain degree,” he commented.
He argued that provocation was substantial and urged a starting range for sentence of between four and nine years.
The judge agreed that, in these particular circumstances on this particular day, the provocation was substantial. He did not find that the aggravating features warranted any upward adjustment of the sentence. There was evidence to suggest she was acting in a state of panic, he said. The fact that she took immediate action to seek help was an important mitigating factor, he added.
He found sufficient mitigation to adjust his starting point to seven years. From that, he deducted one-third discount for her early guilty plea, resulting in a sentence of four and a half years. Time in custody since her arrest will be deducted. Ms. Watler is to take part in anger management and anti-substance abuse programs.