HALIFAX — A criminal charge against the common-law spouse of the man who killed 22 people in the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting has been referred to the province's restorative justice program, clearing the way for her to testify at a public inquiry.
Lisa Banfield was charged with unlawfully providing the shooter with ammunition in the month leading up to the mass killings, although police have said she had no prior knowledge of her spouse's plans.
In Dartmouth provincial court Wednesday, Crown attorneys Eric Taylor and Cory Roberts said it was in "the public interest" for her case to be diverted to restorative justice, which once successfully completed would lead to the criminal charge being dropped.
Banfield's lawyer, James Lockyer, had previously recommended that his client not speak to the mass shooting inquiry until the criminal case was resolved.
Lockyer said Wednesday that Banfield has agreed to the terms proposed by the Crown and is ready to contribute to the inquiry, which began public hearings last month into the April 18-19, 2020, murders.
"I think she's a very important part of what happened that night and an important part of the process," Lockyer told reporters outside the courtroom. "We've been waiting for this chance to talk to the commission, and we're taking it."
Nova Scotia’s restorative justice program creates opportunities for people accused of crimes and victims of crime to work together to come to resolutions, permitting suspects to avoid criminal records.
Lockyer says he thinks the program will involve some sort of counselling for Banfield but he's not aware if families of the 22 people killed will be part of the process. Banfield's case will return to court on May 3 for an update on her progress in the restorative justice program.
Meanwhile, Michael MacDonald, the chair of the inquiry, said commission lawyers interviewed Banfield on Wednesday in “the first of several interviews,” and he said he anticipates the commission will hear from her as a sworn witness to address remaining questions “later in our process.”
He said Banfield has important evidence to provide about the lead-up to Gabriel Wortman's rampage and his past violence toward her and others.
Tara Miller, a lawyer for two family members of victims, said “we’re grateful for the clarity that’s been provided … with respect to confirmation the commission intends to call Ms. Banfield.” However, lawyers for the victims’ families continue to have concerns about the limits on their ability to ask questions.
In his decision Wednesday on which witnesses will be called, MacDonald said the inquiry’s rules of procedure provide for an initial list of questions for witnesses to be developed collaboratively among the lawyers “to the extent possible” and then posed by the commission’s lawyers.
He described a process in which the commission lawyer questions the witness and then consults with the other participants' lawyers — including lawyers for the families — to see if they have remaining questions.
James Banfield, Lisa Banfield's brother, has pleaded guilty to supplying Wortman with ammunition before the killings, while Brian Brewster, Banfield's brother-in-law, is scheduled to go to trial in July and is pleading not guilty.
The three were alleged to have provided Wortman with .223-calibre Remington cartridges and .40-calibre Smith and Wesson cartridges in the month leading up to the massacre. When the RCMP announced the charges in December 2020, they said that the three had no knowledge of what Wortman, who was killed by police on April 19, 2020, would do with his illegal guns and the ammunition.
After meeting with the commission, Lockyer said late Wednesday that the specifics of Banfield's participation in the inquiry are still being discussed.
"These criminal charges have been a real impediment to the commission being able to do a lot of their work," he said. The decision to divert her case to restorative justice "is good for the commission, it's good for the whole justice system of Nova Scotia," he added.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Danielle Edwards and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press