The Kindness Dialogue: Reflections about the Tragedy of Devan Bracci-Selvey
The Kindness Dialogue: Reflections about the Tragedy of Devan Bracci-Selvey
What the hell is the matter with human beings?
Devan Bracci-Selvey was attacked, stabbed and killed in front of his mother while apparently trying to escape bullies at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Hamilton, Ontario. He died in his mother’s arms. A pair of males -- one 14 years of age, the other 18 --were charged with first-degree murder.
It is worth noting that the police did not confirm whether bullying and the attack were directly related. The CBC interviewed Det-Sgt. Steve Bereziuk:
Investigators were initially hesitant to confirm whether the bullying and the attack were directly connected. On Wednesday, Bereziuk said the bullying aspect of the investigation is "growing."
"We are going to continue to probe the bullying concerns," he said.
When asked if police knew of any bullying incidents involving the two teens charged in connection with the homicide, Bereziuk declined to answer.
IGNORE THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION
From a criminal law perspective, we should not jump to conclusions. Indeed, it is important to remember that every accused, including the two teens charged, are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Neither accused should be convicted in the court of public opinion because this court is not fixed with all of the evidence to properly decide the case. The teen’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
What is proof beyond a reasonable doubt? It is proof that is not based on sympathy or prejudice. It is proof objectively determined after considering the whole of the evidence. Though proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not proof to an absolute certainty (for this is impossible), it is proof to something much closer to absolute certainly than on a balance of probabilities.
To prove murder, the Crown must demonstrate -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- that one or both accused had the intent to kill. To prove first-degree murder, the Crown must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that one or both accused planned and deliberated to kill Devan Bracci-Selvey. These are questions that will likely be addressed, one-way or another, in the course of time.
WE CAN DO BETTER
Whatever happens in our criminal justice system, the death of Devan Bracci-Selvey is a heart wrenching, horrifying tragedy. Though I do not have children, I have a hard time imagining anything worse than being a parent forced to witness the death of one’s own child. In my opinion, no matter what happens in the prosecution of this case, we should nevertheless reflect upon it for the purpose of thinking about how we can do better as individuals, as a community and as a society.
We will respond with thoughts, prayers and condolences but in my opinion this is not enough. With little doubt, the public response will be for justice, but no matter what the outcome, this is -- in my opinion -- not enough. Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School may be blamed, but in my view, this may be unfair and still not enough. It’s not enough because none of the blame addresses the root of the problem: what the hell is the matter with people?
Regardless of whether the teens are guilty or not, the fact is, Devan Bracci-Selvey is dead and his death was not necessary.
This post is not about guilt or innocence. It’s not about defending the deceased or the teens; rather, it’s about the need to learn from the tragedy. Whether the teenagers are guilty or not is something to be decided another day; whether our society as a whole is doing a disservice to itself is an issue that can be addressed in the present.
THE ROLE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Criminal justice is mostly reactive, not proactive. This means that our criminal justice system is primarily equipped to respond to tragedy after it happens. Though it certainly has tools to reduce the risk of future recidivism, the role of criminal justice in shaping human beings from the bottom-up is, at best, limited.
I am not a sociologist, but I am citizen whose job collides with persons having severe psychological and social problems. Oftentimes the two are closely intertwined. It is not unusual for me to read reports about an accused’s upbringing, psychological profile and socio-economic circumstances. I can tell you that based on the history of many accused it is not at all surprising that they have had collisions with the criminal justice system. Many children grow-up in poverty, abusive homes, violence and substance abuse. Many children grow-up ignored because their otherwise good parents were forced to work multiple jobs and long hours just to make ends-meet.
I live in an affluent community, where kids ride bikes, play street hockey and do other activities all in view of parents who are obviously closely involved in the lives of their children. It strikes me that these kids have a good chance to avoid the kind of aberrant behaviour we often see in criminal justice, but what of those who aren’t so lucky?
Imagine a child growing up alone in a house where television and video games are the substitute for mom and dad? Again, I am not a parent, but I imagine this can’t be good. Television is not a kind mentor, neither is Xbox; their lessons are dubious. Simply tune-in-to almost any news channel and you will surely see people being unkind to each other.
I once asked a friend whether he ever yelled at his kids. He responded:
“no, I don’t see the point. I don’t think that yelling is constructive or kind”.
With much wisdom, however, he added,
“we are so lucky because one of us is home all the time. My neighbours are not as lucky. They work long hours. They come home exhausted only to have to make dinner and take the kids to various activities”.
It was interesting for me to reflect on the pressures facing parents and the impact on kids. What I found most intriguing about my friend’s answer was that he reflected on the value of kindness. It struck me that despite all of the complicated problems in our society, perhaps the easiest way to begin to address issues is through advocating for a dialogue of kindness.
The question: what the hell is the matter with people is one that should not be left answered only in reaction to tragedy, but should be addressed at its root cause. I am not saying that the 14 year old or 18 year old in Devan Bracci-Selvey’s case have any excuse. I am not saying until this case is proven that either is guilty. I am not suggesting that either was raised in a lonely or abusive home, for I don’t know. Maybe they were raised in kind and attentive homes, similar to those I see in my community? Maybe they aren’t guilty at all?
What I am saying is that these tragedies (in varying degrees) happen all the time and will continue to happen -- some will be adjudicated in our criminal justice system. Though there will be collisions with criminal justice, we need to understand that our criminal justice system is not well equipped to address problems that existed long before they entered the purview of the court.
In my opinion, to expect the justice system to address issues that need to be addressed at their root is unrealistic. These expectations place responsibility where it ought not to lie.
So how do we begin to address problems? .
PROBLEMS RUN DEEP
It is also my opinion, to hold schools responsible for parenting kids may not be realistic either. Though schools certainly have the ability to address problems closer to the root, the reality is, many troubled kids come to class prepackaged with problems. Perhaps it’s not even fair to blame parents; for in our consumer society, where wants and needs are too closely related -- where families are priced out of homes and raising kids is expensive -- sacrifices are made.
I think my generation might be the last where stay-at-home parenting was the norm. Today, I see most parents working full time. Career takes priority. Fortunate families have a stay-at-home parent, perhaps a nanny, the less fortunate a television, an Xbox and possibly some friends. What if the child is exposed to an unsavory friend group?
I don’t have answers, but I do know they run deep.
Assuming the news reports about Devan Bracci-Selvey are correct and the boy was bullied and stabbed, I am left to wonder, what the hell is the matter with the people who did this? Assuming it’s true, how did these kids think it was alright to bring a knife to school, to attack a kid and introduce a weapon into the assault? Most importantly, how do we address the issue in the short term and long term?
I don’t have any easy answers. I know that our criminal law is not well equipped to answer either.
As we work through problems to address issues at their core, maybe the starting point is to simplify the narrative? To that end, it struck me that maybe we need to spend more time dialoguing about the simple act of kindness? This can be done by everybody. On this subject, I think most of us are in need of improvement (including me).
Though it’s not at all directly related, I watched Ellen Degeneres respond to critics of her fraternizing with George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboy’s game. Her response to the criticism was that she can be friends with those who are different and that we can always be kind It’s a good lesson.
I apologize, the clip is long. The important part is near the end.
Amidst all of the inequity and problems within our society, perhaps we don’t need to be social justice warriors to do one simple thing: be kind to one-another?
If we are kind, we won’t bully. If we are kind, we won’t make others feel badly because they are different? If we are kind we won’t assault our fellow human beings -- we certainly won’t attack or stab them. If we are kind, perhaps kids from all walks of life, from all types of families have a chance for no other reason than everybody has the tools to be kind to each other. If we are kind, I think we can almost certainly avoid what happened to Devon Bracci-Selvey.
Criminal justice is often not kind. We deal with mean people, sometimes even being mean ourselves. Make no mistake, lawyers are often not kind; accused are often not kind, police are often not kind and judges are often not kind. If we can’t be kind from the top-down, why do we expect anybody to be kind from the bottom-up?
Though her message was not related to Devon Bracci-Selvey, maybe Ellen Degeneres still had the right one?
To change the narrative this Calgary criminal lawyer needs to make some changes. No doubt, it will be challenging.
Let's start being kind to one-another.
David Chow is a full service criminal defence lawyer in Calgary, Alberta. He is a Calgary domestic violence lawyer and Calgary homicide lawyer. He offers free consultations for all criminal law cases. Call 403.452.8018.