TORONTO — The Canadian Supreme Court ruled Friday that a federal law that effectively allows judges to sentence criminals to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional, finding that it violates protections against cruel and unusual punishment and brings “the administration of justice into disrepute.”
The psychological effects, it concluded, “are in some respects comparable to those experienced by inmates on death row, since only death will end their incarceration.”
The ruling was highly anticipated here, in part because of the offender at its center: Alexandre Bissonnette, the man who killed six people at a Quebec City mosque in 2017. The top court sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole for 25 years. Prosecutors initially sought a sentence of life without parole for 150 years.
But the impact of the decision extends well beyond Bissonnette. A man found guilty on 10 charges of first-degree murder after ramming a white rental truck into unsuspecting pedestrians on a major Toronto thoroughfare in 2018 has not yet been sentenced, pending the outcome of this case.
The Supreme Court said its declaration of invalidity is retroactive to the date the 2011 law was enacted, meaning those who have been sentenced under the statute can now seek relief. They include the man who killed three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in 2014 and was sentenced to life without parole for 75 years.
All U.S. states except Alaska authorize life without parole, according to a 2021 report from the Sentencing Project, which found that over 80 percent of people serving life without parole in the world are in U.S. prisons.
In 1976, when Canada abolished the death penalty, it set life imprisonment with no chance at parole for 25 years as the mandatory sentence for adults convicted of first-degree murder. The parole ineligibility periods for offenders convicted of multiple murders were to be served concurrently.
That changed in 2011, when Parliament passed a law giving judges the ability to stack parole ineligibility periods of 25 years for each murder conviction, so that they were served consecutively. It meant offenders could effectively be sentenced to life without parole or to sentences longer than the human life span.
Bissonnette, armed with a semiautomatic weapon and a pistol, opened fire on 46 people gathered for evening prayers at a Quebec City mosque in 2017, killing half a dozen and severely injuring others. At his trial, prosecutors claimed his attack was premeditated. They alleged that he had spent time online researching the Ku Klux Klan, other mass shootings and their perpetrators and had frequently checked the Twitter accounts of conspiracy theorists and far-right figures.
Bissonnette told police that he was motivated by a pledge from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to welcome those “fleeing persecution, terror and war” regardless of their faith, a message that Trudeau tweeted after President Donald Trump imposed a U.S. entry ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Bissonnette pleaded guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder. Prosecutors in Quebec asked for a life sentence without the possibility of parole for 150 years, six consecutive parole ineligibility periods of 25 years for each victim.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Francois Huot wrote in his decision that the date of the mosque attack “will forever be written in blood in the history of this city, this province and this country.” But he found the 2011 law “grossly disproportionate and totally incompatible with human dignity.”
“Canada,” Huot wrote, “is not a country where we lock up the most undesirable elements of society in a dungeon, toss the key to their freedom into the wide river of collective indifference and then forget about their very existence.”
He ordered Bissonnette to serve five ineligibility periods of 25 years concurrently and tacked on 15 years for the sixth victim for a sentence of life without a chance at parole for 40 years. In a later 3-0 decision, a Quebec appeals court said the 2011 law violated constitutional protections to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and the right to life, liberty and security of the person. It declared it unconstitutional and sentenced Bissonnette to life without parole for 25 years.
Prosecutors appealed to the Supreme Court. Civil liberties groups urged that the law be struck down. The attorneys general of Canada and several provinces, as well as police groups and relatives of the murder victims of a notorious Canadian serial killer, asked the court to uphold the law.
In legal filings, several of the parties granted intervenor status, similar to “friend of the court” status in U.S. courts, contended that before the 2011 law, people convicted of multiple murders were effectively given a “free pass” or sentencing “discount” for each additional murder.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police said Bissonnette is “the epitome” of a case justifying the need for the law. The Supreme Court said the “horror of the crimes” does “not negate the basic proposition that all human beings carry within them a capacity for rehabilitation” and its finding “must not be seen as devaluing the life of each innocent victim.”
“Everyone would agree that multiple murders are inherently despicable acts and are the most serious crimes,” the court said. This appeal is “about the limits of the state’s power to punish offenders, which, in a society founded on the rule of law, must be exercised in a manner consistent with the constitution.”
The National Council of Canadian Muslims said the survivors of the shooting and their families will have their wounds reopened each time Bissonnette appears for a parole hearing. “Today, we are thinking about the families,” Mustafa Farooq, the chief executive of the group, said in a statement. “Their pain has never fully healed, and their wounds are reopened today as they struggle with the possibility of being among the one who killed their loved ones that night.”
David Lametti, the Canadian justice minister, said in a statement he acknowledged the “hurt and anger” rekindled by the decision. He said while the government supported judicial discretion to lengthen the parole ineligibility period, it would respect the decision “and carefully review its implications.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly noted the year that Canada abolished the death penalty. It was 1976, not 1967. The article has been corrected.