It was a “historic” first in Manitoba when the guilty verdict came down not far where Crystal Andrews was beaten to death.
The Jan. 24 decision by Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Chris Martin was delivered in a packed community hall in Gods Lake Narrows First Nation, more than 1,000 km north of Winnipeg.
Martin was presiding over the second-degree murder case against Michael Okemow, also of Gods Lake Narrows, in the nearby city of Thompson, Man., but wanted to reveal his decision in front of Andrews’ family and friends.
“This is a very important thing that has happened. It’s historic,” Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), told reporters at a news conference in Winnipeg Friday morning.
“And I’m hoping that we see a trend going into these communities not only because of the cost factor but because it’s a culturally appropriate way to handle justice.”
Settee sat next to Crystal’s mother Beverly Andrews, who clutched an eagle feather, as he detailed the emotional and financial impact associated with holding trials in bigger cities.
He said the expense and travel involved effectively “disconnected” First Nation communities from this part of the justice system. MKO is a political advocacy group that represents more than 20 northern Manitoba First Nations.
“No verdict will ever make up for the tragic loss of Crystal Andrews,” Settee added.
“But the opportunity for the family and the community to participate in the criminal justice system together may help bring healing for this family.”
(Crystal Andrews was a 22-year-old married mother of two when she disappeared walking home Nov. 8, 2015. APTN file)
Okemow, who was charged two-and-a-half years after the killing, pleaded not guilty. He told police he didn’t know Andrews and his vehicle was carjacked by two unknown men who choked him unconscious and left him in a ditch.
Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, manager of MKO’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls unit, said it was important for everyone to be part of the process, including Okemow.
“It also allows the accused to go back to the community and face the community for the homicide that occurred in the community,” she said.
“So there was some form of justice there, too, that there was some accountability there, facing the community and seeing the devastation to the faces in the courtroom and the heartbreak and the tears.”
Crystal was a 22-year-old married mother of two when she disappeared walking home on Nov. 8, 2015. Her battered body was found on a wooded trail in Gods Lake Narrows.
“I have mixed emotions,” said her mother, who broke down several times during the news conference.
“I am happy there is justice for Crystal, but also filled with sadness and anger as I learned the details of the violent murder of my daughter through the court process.”
Okemow, 37, is set to learn his sentence in May.
Settee is hoping that hearing will also be held in Gods Lake Narrows.
Justice Martin declined to comment until the case is concluded.