The woman’s emotions overtook her voice by the time she got to the second sentence of her address to the court.
“My mental health is not good anymore and it’s not fair,” she said through tears. “I know as a person I’ve changed.
“I feel like I’ll never get over this.”
The woman chose to read her own victim impact statement to the judge at the sentencing hearing for Robert Pennell in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St. John’s on Tuesday. Instead of standing in the witness box, she chose to take a seat at the bench right in front of where Pennell, 62, was sitting, keeping her back turned to him.
The woman described how she still suffers the impacts of Oct. 7, 2016, when she was working at the Ultramar gas bar on Freshwater Road and Pennell entered with a knife, demanding that she give him money or he’d hop over the counter.
The woman followed Pennell’s instructions and filled a plastic bag with money. He took it and left. The bag contained a location device, which police used to track to the area of nearby Linscott Street. An officer located Pennell lying in the grass in a soccer field. When the officer approached Pennell, Pennell said, “A guy just ran through here. I didn’t rob nothing.” A bag containing $115.25 in cash and the location device was found next to Pennell, and a search of the field turned up gloves and a hat similar to those worn by the robber, with Pennell’s DNA on them.
The woman told the court she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the armed robbery, takes medication for depression and anxiety, and has trouble sleeping at times, seeing Pennell’s face when she closes her eyes. She still struggles to understand why he committed the crime, she said.
When the young woman finished speaking, Pennell’s lawyer, Shelley Senior, asked her if she felt comfortable hearing an apology Pennell had written her. The woman nodded.
“I sometimes get flashbacks of the look of fear on your face that day,” Pennell wrote. “It saddens me deeply every time this happens. I myself am a victim of violent crime that occurred in my youth. I would not wish that experience on anyone. To be a victim of any crime is a horrible thing, so I can say with the utmost sincerity that I am sorry for my actions.”
Through a separate written statement read to the court by Senior, Pennell, 62, spoke of his own upbringing, as he has done before. He detailed growing up without a father, and starting to steal at a young age, eventually getting caught. As a resident of Pleasantville Boys’ home at the age of 11, Pennell said, he was repeatedly raped by a man there, running away twice and eventually, after an accident, growing addicted to opiate painkillers. It was his addiction that kept him in a life of crime, Pennell said.
Pennell also spoke of his time in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary since his arrest, describing the conditions in the prison as inhumane and telling of having undertaken hunger strikes to protest what he said are unfit living standards, full of filth and rodents.
To prove his point, Senior presented a pair of Pennell’s sneakers to the court, showing a jagged tear on the back of one of them. Pennell says the tear was made by rats that gnawed the sneakers in his cell at HMP.
Senior called HMP nurse practitioner Brian Budden to the stand, who explained under questioning that Pennell had been weaned off his prescribed opiates inside the prison due to his history of addiction. Budden explained it’s HMP policy to allow inmates who arrive at HMP already in a methadone or suboxone treatment program for opiate addiction to continue it, sometimes with guidance from a specialist in the community, but the prison will not start the treatment for an inmate who is not already taking it.
“My understanding is that Robert took some steps to try and advocate for himself,” Budden said, by writing and calling government officials. Budden said he didn’t know how it happened, but he received notification one day that Pennell would be prescribed suboxone and an addictions specialist in the community would oversee his care.
“It’s caused chaos,” Budden said of that decision. “Other inmates who have requested (suboxone) are asking, ‘Why can’t I get it?’ and I don’t have an answer.”
Budden also spoke about Pennell’s 14-month wait to see an optometrist. Pennell wears bifocals and is reportedly having eyesight trouble, and Senior also presented his broken glasses – with only one ear piece – to the court.
The former HMP optometrist retired in January 2017, Budden explained, and staff were told a replacement doctor would take over.
“They came in for the first month or two, and then we didn’t see them again until this past July,” Budden said.
Pennell still didn’t get his appointment, the nurse practitioner explained, since his referral had accidentally been overlooked.
Last winter, Pennell had surgery for a hernia, Budden said, and was placed in the prison’s Special Handling Unit (SHU) when he was released from hospital, so he could be monitored 24 hours a day. Budden said Pennell developed a hematoma at the surgery site which caused the site to open, and Pennell had to return to hospital for new stitches.
“(Pennell) says that in the SHU, he was told he had to clean the place up himself, even though it was filthy and he was recovering from surgery. Is that true?” Senior asked Budden.
“I can’t speak to proper protocol, that’s up to correctional staff,” Budden replied. “But my understanding is the inmates are responsible for the cleanliness of their living area.”
Senior suggested to Justice Donald Burrage that Pennell’s traumatic childhood and history of mental illness, the fact that he has no prior armed robbery convictions, his insight into his crimes and the conditions he has endured in HMP warrant a sentence of time served.
“I’m not suggesting for any moment that this excuses Mr. Pennell from going in and frightening (the gas station employee) and committing the armed robbery. There’s no excuse for that,” Senior said. “I’m offering it as an explanation for why he acts the way he does sometimes.”
Crown prosecutor Shawn Patten was quick to remind the judge that Pennell is not the victim in this case.
“What he experienced in his youth was horrific, there’s no question,” Patten said. “It has had an impact, no doubt. But we have to be responsible for our behaviour.”
Patten tendered Pennell’s criminal record, noting while it does not contain any prior convictions for armed robbery, he has multiple convictions for serious assaults.
Pennell’s record is more than two dozen pages long, and stretches back to 1983. Pennell has implicated his childhood trauma as a factor in his crimes a number of times in the past.
“The short of it is he’s been given multiple opportunities to turn his life around,” Patten continued. “We’ve received an apology from him. That’s great. But the court has to consider what weight to give that when it comes to a record of 30-plus years.
With respect to conditions inside HMP, Patten asked the judge to “tread lightly,” pointing out the prison does have an addictions treatment policy in place, even though Pennell didn’t accept it. Pennell’s health issues after his surgery were dealt with, Patten stressed, and said he was unable to “prove or disprove” the tears in Pennell’s sneakers had been caused by rats.
“I ask the court to remember the words and the emotion expressed by (the victim) today in having to relive what happened for the court,” Patten said.
Patten suggested a jail sentence of four years, minus 25 months or so for credit Pennell has earned on remand.
Burrage is scheduled to deliver his sentencing verdict Sept. 20.