Ottawa Sun Columnist: Michael Harris - Another date with a murderer
Ottawa Sun Columnist: Michael Harris - Another date with a murderer

Fri, January 7, 2005

Another date with a murderer

By MICHAEL HARRIS -- For the Ottawa Sun

Life, as recent events show, can be cruel. So why should our government sanction one more exquisite torture for a few of our citizens?

While most of us were getting ready for Christmas in the dying days of the old year, the family of Andy Moffitt was steeling itself for a grim but necessary ordeal. Henry Danninger, the man who brutally stabbed their child to death in an Ottawa bar in 1998, was scheduled for a parole hearing.

That in itself is a travesty of major proportions. Just 20 months after receiving a 5-year sentence for Andy's senseless murder (the young man died trying to break up a fight which earned him a posthumous Governor General's Award for Bravery), Danninger was slated to go before a parole hearing on Dec. 8 to review his penalty. After less than two years in jail, I guess he felt he had suffered enough.

Not so the Moffitts. No court can change the verdict Danninger's crime handed out to their family. Their way of honouring their son is to be there for him every step of the way, no matter how painful. So when Danninger planned to go before the parole board, the Moffitts planned to be there to remind a system that often forgets the enormity of what has happened here and what has been lost.

In standing up for Andy yet again, the Moffitts had to put Christmas on hold and review an event which would turn any heart to stone. There are the practical details -- making arrangements with employers, juggling responsibilities for their other children, marshalling friends and supporters, the expenses, and rearranging their daily schedules to accommodate the trip to court.

And behind all the pain of reopening the pink scars of having lost their son was this monstrous possibility: As a consequence of the hearing, Henry Danninger might be free on parole less than two years into his murder sentence.

It takes courage to continue under these conditions and the Moffitts have plenty of that. But when Henry Danninger abruptly cancelled his parole hearing, all the gathering of strength, all of the steely resolve, all of the planning came crashing down in a heap of heartbreaking frustration.

When the inmate agreed to a new date for his parole hearing, the Moffitts regrouped and prepared for a Jan. 14 date with the devil. Except that the devil was proving capricious. Just before the re-scheduled event, a terse letter from the National Parole Board informed Paulette Moffitt that the killer had changed the date yet again. He would now face his hearing on Feb. 22 -- assuming, of course, he feels like it.

In the sad fraternity of those who have lost loved ones to violent crime, Henry Danninger's heartless manipulation is an old story. Ten years ago, William Coon, who was then 17, shot dead Frankie Battaglia and Rob O'Connor in the Battaglia home. Coon said he had shot the boys because they had "pissed him off."

The presiding judge found the crime so cold-blooded and so heinous that he moved the young offender to adult court, where Coon received a double conviction for first-degree murder.

The Battaglia and O'Connor families, like the Moffitts, wanted to be there when Coon went before the parole board. By 2002, he had yanked the families' chain 10 times -- first arranging, then cancelling the hearings. The integrity of the parole system seems to require the perpetrator calling the shots, turning the whole exercise into a disgusting display of dirty pool.

The Martin government, the Justice Department, Corrections Canada, and the National Parole Board have much to answer for in the justice portfolio.

The Justice Department must explain why thousands of cases where criminal prosecutions are warranted are being pulled back from crown prosecutors who are appalled at the system's irresponsibility.

The Correctional Service of Canada must tell us why it continues to recycle old lies about how often convicts reoffend, and by implication, how effective its restorative justice model really is.

The National Parole Board must tell us why, between 1975 and 1997, it was party to the murders of 367 innocent Canadians who died at the hands of inmates released from prison as sufficiently rehabilitated to walk our streets again.

I understand how those who create dysfunctional bureaucracies instinctively circle the wagons to protect their empires and their own self-interest. I also understand that there is no political lion on the scene who will tackle this country's shameful justice system and all its big problems.

But surely even Paul Martin must realize that Paulette Moffitt shouldn't be dancing to the tune played by a killer merely because she wants to stand up for her dead child's place in our justice system, such as it is.

Convicts shouldn't have a role in scheduling their own parole hearings. But even assuming they will continue to do so, independent MP Chuck Cadman had it right with his doomed Bill-C-233.

Under that bill, any inmate who changed the date of his parole hearing for frivolous reasons would not have been permitted to reapply for a new one for two years.

For now, the chain is firmly in the inmates' hands. Be sure they will continue to pull it.

   Letter to the Media
   Bill C-393
   Our Angel
   Thank You
   Mike's Speech
   Memorial Speech
   Andy's Story
   Our Brother