But as the fire goes out I have no doubt of the warmth and Love throughout our house —From the poem The Fire by Christopher Stephenson
Even in an age numbed by random violence, Christopher Stephenson’s death held a special terror. On a Friday evening in June, 1988, the friendly, brown-haired 11-year-old went shopping with his mother, Anna, in a mall in Brampton, Ont., just west of Toronto. As Christopher waited outside for her to finish her purchases, he was accosted by Joseph Fredericks, a convicted child rapist on parole. Fredericks, then 45, who had spent most of his life in prison and mental institutions, held a knife to the boy’s throat and walked him to a vacant lot. Fredericks raped
him there, then took Christopher to his basement apartment where he raped him again and drugged him before stabbing him to death in a nearby field. But Christopher did not become just another sad statistic. His brown eyes now peer from thousands of badges and posters across the country. The aim of that campaign, started by Christopher’s parents: to force politicians to tighten the rules that sometimes allow psychopathic killers like Fredericks to walk free. “We hope that something will come of it,” says James Stephenson. “The price that had to be paid was just so high.”
Following Christopher’s murder and Fredericks’s subsequent trial, the
Stephensons launched a $ 1.8-million civil suit against the federal government. In the suit, which is still being contested, the Stephensons claim that Corrections Canada officials were negligent because they released Fredericks from jail knowing that he could attack again. As well, in an attempt to expose the truth surrounding their son’s murder, the Stephensons hired their own lawyer, Timothy Danson of Toronto, to cross-examine witnesses at a five-monthlong coroner’s hearing last year into the murder. In January, the jury produced 71 recommendations on how Canada’s justice and corrections systems should be changed to protect society from violent sexual predators like Fredericks. And jury members subsequently urged both Ottawa and the Ontario government, which prosecuted Fredericks, to pay the Stephensons’ $300,000 legal bill. Says Gary Rosenfeld, executive director of the Ottawa-based Victims of Violence International: “If we pay the criminals’ lawyers, we should have to pay the victims’.”
So far, both governments have turned down the recommendation, claiming that a Crown attorney adequately represented the Stephensons’ interests at the inquest. But thousands of Canadians, clearly touched by the poster and button campaign launched by the family in December, have sent the Stephensons letters of support as well as money to help pay their legal bills. “We had no idea that the public would be this generous,” says Stephenson. “We touched a raw nerve.” To date, the family has raised nearly $125,000, while the widespread support for the Stephenson family may be forcing the federal government, which has promised to implement many of the recommendations of the inquiry, to reconsider its position on compensation.
Brian Mclnnis, legislative assistant to Solicitor General Doug Lewis, said last week that the “door is still open to negotiation.”
Careful: Pressure has also been brought to bear on the government from other sources. On Feb. 9, three members of the coroner’s jury took the unusual step of holding a news conference to declare that they could not have formulated their recommendations without Danson’s careful cross-examination of witnesses. Stephenson added that he and his wife had little choice but to hire their own lawyer. “We didn’t believe that the government should be investigating itself,” he says.
Fredericks, who received a 25-year prison sentence in December,
1989, for Christopher’s murder, was killed on Jan. 3,1992, by another inmate at the Kingston Penitentiary. The Stephensons, meanwhile, are still trying to come to terms with their son’s death. Only recently, they packed up Christopher’s belongings and put them into storage, allowing their daughter Amanda, 13, to move into her brother’s room. “We found it very difficult to change his room,” Stephenson says. “We left it pretty much as it was for years.” Were it not for Amanda, he notes, their situation could have been much worse. “It would not have been very difficult for us to be captured in the past,” Stephenson says. “But when you have another child you realize that life must go on.” Meanwhile, they continue their painful struggle against Canada’s parole laws. Adds Stephenson: “Something positive has to come out of that awful weekend.”
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