McGuinty surprised by plea bargain that would see criminals paying victim

Keith Leslie, Canadian Press

Published: April 7, 2006

TORONTO -- The Ontario government came under attack Thursday amid reports of an unusual plea bargain that would see a Toronto shooting victim paid as much as $2.5 million by her alleged attackers, apparently in exchange for reduced sentences.

The four men charged in the shooting of innocent bystander Louise Russo at a Toronto sandwich shop, which left her paralyzed and galvanized the city when it happened in April 2004, were scheduled to appear in court again next week.

A published report on Thursday said that the plea bargain had been finalized and that details would be disclosed at the April 12 hearing.

Neither Premier Dalton McGuinty nor Attorney General Michael Bryant would confirm Thursday that a cash payment was part of any plea bargain; both insisted they were unable to comment because the case is still before the courts.

But that didn't stop Conservative house leader Bob Runciman from raising the issue in the legislature, accusing the Crown of making deals with accused criminals and railing against the province for allowing such a deal to happen.

"If true, it looks as though organized crime is attempting to buy a cheaper sentence with the proceeds of criminal activities," Runciman said during question period.

Bryant repeatedly told Runciman he would not confirm or deny anything to do with the case, but Runciman persisted in trying to find out whether the government has a policy allowing accused criminals to pay restitution to their victims in exchange for a reduced sentence.

"Will you direct Crown attorneys in this province to ask for the maximum sentence in all cases of contract killers affiliated with organized crime?" he asked.

Police say Russo was an unintended victim of the attack on the sandwich shop, which they believe was aimed at figures with alleged links to organized crime who were in the shop at the time.

Peter Scarcella, Antonio Borrelli, Paris Christoforou and Mark Peretz face a number of charges, including conspiracy to commit murder. None of the allegations against the four accused in the shooting have been proven in court.

Bryant told the legislature that he did not want to jeopardize the case by talking when he shouldn't, but noted that he would speak about it publicly after the trial was over.

The attorney general also refused to disclose any details of the deal, and said the opposition and the media should stop talking about the plea bargain until they know all the facts.

"Louise Russo has indicated to me that the speculation that takes place around this matter is very harmful and hurtful and difficult," Bryant said.

"I believe her and her family have been through enough and should not be subjected to this kind of speculation."

McGuinty admitted it was the first he'd heard of the idea of allowing accused criminals to pay cash to victims.

"I must say that it's a new concept for me, but since it is before the courts, it's in the hands of the Crown attorney," McGuinty said. "We don't direct these matters, and I'm going to allow that to unfold."

But Runciman said people would be shocked if the Liberal government allowed the Crown to negotiate such deals with criminals and tie the money to their prison sentences.

"If this goes forward as suggested, this is a horrible mistake, a very dangerous precedent," he said in the legislature.

"You have to be able to assure Ontarians that the payment of money is not reducing the sentence of these contract killers. All they have to do is have the funds necessary to buy a cheaper sentence. That's the precedent here."

Runciman said if Russo is to receive money for her injuries, it should come from the $40-million Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

But the board's website said its lump sum awards to victims of crime can vary up to $25,000, a tiny fraction than the $2.5 million said to be at the heart of the Russo deal.

The Crown attorney's office did not return phone calls Thursday.

 The Canadian Press 2006