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OPINION: On schadenfreude and finding justice

Sympathy may be a challenge to find for a killer assaulted in prison
The Mountain Institution in Agassiz, B.C. Sunday, March 30, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

I received a three-page letter in the mail in late 2020 from a man who was assaulted so badly that he suffered a dozen facial fractures requiring reconstructive surgery.

The letter came via Canada Post from Ivan Plewes in Agassiz. He explained the brutal assault by an assailant that left him bloodied and unconscious, forced to heal without surgery that had to be postponed in spring 2020 because of the pandemic.

Then Plewes experienced what so many victims of crime do, flaws in a criminal justice system focused primarily on the accused, on criminals.

Those who are the victims of crime often fall through the cracks or, at least, they are left to feel that way.

Plewes said that his victim impact statement was never read to the court at the sentencing of his attacker, Joseph Junior Vienneau who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five months jail in August.

The story as summarized above, so far, evokes sympathy: A man seriously injured in a violent assault, traumatized by the incident and by his experience with the court system.

But Plewes is not your average victim. His letter came to me from Agassiz, from Mountain Institution, where Plewes is 24 years into a life sentence for second-degree murder.

In October of 1996, 18-year-old Laura Seymour and her 20-month-old son Antoni were found strangled and smothered in the woman’s home in 100 Mile House. Plewes was found in the woods nearby. He was charged and later convicted of two counts of first-degree murder.

In the year 2000, Plewes’ first-degree murder conviction was overturned on appeal and a new trial was ordered, after which he was convicted of second-degree murder, a conviction for which he is still behind bars.

Having read this far regarding what Plewes did in 1996 and what happened to him behind bars in 2020, I’d like to point out that “schadenfreude” was the seventh most looked up dictionary word in 2020, according to Merriam-Webster. For those unfamiliar with schadenfreude, the German word means to derive pleasure or satisfaction from the misfortunes of others.

Now be honest with yourself: Did you experience any schadenfreude reading the above?

(Unrelated to Plewes, the reason that the word was so searched in 2020 is because of a certain ex-president’s positive test for COVID-19.)

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Russian philosopher and author Fyodor Dostoevsky is quoted as saying: “A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.”

Even if incarcerated for terrible acts, those serving time are meant to be protected while behind bars. As those in law enforcement and criminal justice know all too well, it’s always harder – if more necessary – to protect individuals who commit crimes against children.

On that note, I remember being in court covering the first trial of David Kuntz-Angel charged with sexual assault of an underage girl, and he complained to the judge that he had his teeth knocked out at Surrey Pretrial Centre because of “things Mr. Henderson printed in the paper.”

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While not perfect, I think in Canada those who are convicted of crimes, even the most heinous kinds like Mr. Plewes, are treated pretty well. While his letter asked that I reprint it as a complaint against the justice system, the fact that Plewes was allowed to write it at all, and that he is able to complain about a flawed justice system, proves exactly that.

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide the level of sympathy or justice that should have been meted out in this case, with the final words of Plewes in his letter to me.

“Having just started my 25th year of incarceration, it is all too easy to view myself as a social discard. Yet even given how completely the rights granted to me as a victim of crime were dismissed, I would like to believe that most Canadians believe in fairness and equality and that the rights granted to each of us as citizens of Canada are for all of us… aren’t they?”

Note: An earlier version of this column identified philosopher and author Fyodor Dostoevsky as German. The Progress regrets the error and any confusion it may have caused.

Paul Henderson is the editor of The Chilliwack Progress.

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