Appeals court upholds Peter Kingwatsiak murder conviction
Appeals court judges reject argument murderer’s trial was flawed by Inuktitut ‘interpretation issues’
The Nunavut Court of Appeal has rejected an appeal by a Kinngait man convicted of first-degree murder who said the interpretation at his 2015 trial was fundamentally flawed.
“The meaning and intent of the interpretation is always clear,” a decision released Oct. 19 from Justices Karan Shaner, Frederica Schutz and Kevin Feehan said.
“The linguistic interpretation does not appear to have affected the understanding of the exchange [between Kingwatsiak and the lawyers and judge at trial]. When Mr. Kingwatsiak identified a concern with the quality of interpretation, the court fully and properly assessed the issue,” the 12-page decision said.
Justice Bonnie Tulloch convicted Kingwatsiak of first-degree murder in 2016 when he aimed and shot a .22-calibre rifle point blank at his step-brother Mappaluk Adla’s head while Adla slept.
The killing occurred in 2010 in Kinngait, shortly after Kingwatsiak had turned 18.
First-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Last year, Iqaluit defence lawyer Alison Crowe filed an appeal of both the conviction and sentence.
She argued, in part, that Tulloch’s handling of concerns raised at trial about the interpretation led to a miscarriage of justice.
Crowe filed a report by linguistic experts who said Tulloch’s mistakes “resulted in unfairness towards the accused,” were at times “culturally insensitive” and showed “an apparent lack of understanding of the gulf between any two languages.”
Crowe asked the appeal judges to accept this report as new evidence not presented at trial.
But in their decision to dismiss the appeal, the panel of justices wrote that the “proposed [linguistic] experts are critical of the trial judge far beyond concerns with interpretation issues” and they therefore “pay no attention to these criticisms.”
The report does “demonstrate differences in sentence structure, grammar and some individual word selections,” the decision said.
But this “proposed new evidence does not bear upon a decisive or potentially decisive issue at trial” and is therefore not admitted, they concluded.
Shortly after Tulloch’s 2016 conviction, some legal and language experts raised concerns about the interpretation issues in this case.
For example, Tulloch said Kingwatsiak used differences in dialect between himself and the interpreters to his advantage, was evasive and took long pauses before answering.
“If it’s a non-Inuktitut-speaking judge, how can they conclude [Kingwatsiak] was using interpreters to his advantage? Were they in a position to assess the quality?” Sandra Inutiq, Nunavut’s former language commissioner, and a trained lawyer, said in a 2016 interview with Nunatsiaq News.
University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach told Nunatsiaq News in 2016 that court translation is a “largely unexamined” weakness in Canada’s justice system.
He also said Indigenous groups across the country “have a difficult time being understood by the justice system.”
“Is this a systemic issue or related to this particular case?” Roach asked rhetorically.
Responding to Kingwatsiak’s appeal last year, Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., told CBC North in an interview that the cultural and language barriers Inuit face in the court room “definitely” give rise to miscarriages of justice.
“It’s not an Inuit justice system, so definitely there’s been misgivings in the system and it doesn’t incorporate Inuit ways of understanding and being,” she told CBC in December 2020.
Crowe also sought the appeal on the grounds that Kingwatsiak could not properly form the intent for premeditated murder, in part because of the gas fumes he said he had been sniffing leading up to the killing.
But the appeals judges disagreed again.
Tulloch’s “conclusion that the killing of Mr. Adla was both planned and deliberate is reasonable, supported and without palpable and overriding error,” the decision said.