N.W.T. appeal court panel orders new sentencing hearing for man convicted in Hay River killing

The courthouse in Yellowknife. (Natalie Pressman/CBC - image credit)
The courthouse in Yellowknife. (Natalie Pressman/CBC - image credit)

A panel of N.W.T. Court of Appeal judges has ordered a new sentencing hearing for a Hay River man convicted of second-degree murder and robbery in the 2017 death of Alex Norwegian.

The panel also changed his murder conviction to a manslaughter conviction.

James Thomas was sentenced in 2021 to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 10 years. He appealed that sentence and his conviction in March 2022, arguing his trial judge didn't apply the law correctly when it came to his murder charge.

He had initially been charged with first-degree murder, but Justice Andrew Mahar found him guilty of second-degree murder instead.

Thomas was one of several people implicated in robbing and attacking Norwegian on a remote road on the Kátł'odeeche First Nation on Dec. 27, 2017. Norwegian later died of hypothermia after he was left with a fractured skull in a windowless car in –20 C temperatures.

Appeal panel's ruling

In a judgment released Wednesday, justices Suzanne Duncan, Bernette Ho and April Grosse ruled Mahar made errors in his reasoning for convicting Thomas of second-degree murder.

The judges wrote that Mahar had found Thomas didn't have an actual intention to kill Norwegian and wouldn't have known that the injuries he and the others involved had inflicted on Norwegian would result in his death.

The underlying rationale for Mahar's decision, they noted, was because the group then left Norwegian — a decision that ultimately led to his death.

"In these circumstances, the act of leaving, however immoral, was not itself an unlawful act," the appeal decision states.

They said Mahar made another error when he found Thomas had a legal duty to take action to save Norwegian's life.

"No federal or provincial statute imposed a legal duty on [Thomas] 'to make sure [the victim] was not left exposed to the elements,'" they wrote.

While they found Mahar's reasoning was flawed for a second-degree murder conviction, they said it satisfied the requirements for a manslaughter conviction. They ordered that Thomas be re-sentenced on that conviction.