Fort Saskatchewan father found guilty of manslaughter in death of infant son

A Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., man has been found guilty of manslaughter in the death of his infant son, and convicted of assault for attacking his daughter, who was five years old at the time.

On Wednesday, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice John Henderson rejected the automatism defence put forward by Damien Starrett’s lawyer.

“I don’t accept [Starrett’s] statement that he was unaware of what was happening at the time of the assaults,” Henderson said in his decision Wednesday.

Starrett, 33, was originally charged with second-degree murder for the death of Ares Starrett in November 2019. But after all the evidence was in, the Crown conceded there was no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he had the necessary criminal intent.

Ares Starrett died of blunt force trauma to his head. His father punched, kicked and stomped on the baby’s head during the attack.

The onus was on Starrett to prove he was not criminally responsible for what the judge described as “a vicious attack of extreme violence.” 

During the trial, Starrett testified he had fallen asleep on the couch the afternoon of the killing. At the time, he was taking care of his son and daughter while his wife was at work.

Starrett claimed a dream made him feel like he was being overtaken by violence and force by a creature that was as black as a viper. He said he was trying to protect his children from the creature. 

The judge rejected that explanation. 

“It’s possible he even believes this story,” Henderson said. “He’s attempting to rationalize his behaviour.”

Henderson found Starrett was battling a number of crises and problems in the days and weeks leading up to the killing. 

He had debilitating back pain and a long history of insomnia. He had stopped using heroin a couple of weeks before the attacks and the judge found Starrett was experiencing extreme withdrawal symptoms.

Damien Starrett, 33, was originally charged with second-degree murder. But it was later changed to manslaughter. (Damien Starrett/Facebook)

The family was in financial trouble and so was Starrett’s marriage. Starrett was also addicted to Percocet and had run out of pills hours before the attack.

“He was in a desperate situation at that time and was prone to explosive outbursts when unaddressed anger issues overwhelmed him,” Henderson said. 

“I conclude he became overwhelmed at his situation and burst out in an aggressive and disproportionate manner, striking his children.”

The Edmonton courtroom was packed Wednesday when the decision came. The victim’s mother, sitting in the front row of the courtroom gallery, began to cry.

She clutched a teddy bear throughout the court proceedings.

“I’m grateful there was a guilty verdict, though I know it should be more than what it is,” she told reporters outside the courthouse, still holding onto the teddy bear.

Bail revoked

Henderson revoked Starrett’s bail, despite objections from the defence.

The judge determined that allowing Starrett to remain free after being convicted of manslaughter would damage the public’s confidence in the administration of justice.

The victim’s mother — who is now also Starrett’s ex-wife — was relieved to see Starrett taken into custody. 

“This whole time he’s been out there, I didn’t feel safe or comfortable,” she said. “He is a very explosive person at times, so it’s best that he isn’t out into the public.”

She also worries about her daughter, who saw her baby brother killed while she was also being attacked.

“Every day is going to be a constant battle in healing,” she said. “She’ll be affected by this for the rest of her life. But we’ll get through it together.”

Ares Starrett’s mother clutched a teddy bear while speaking with reporters outside the courthouse Wednesday. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Starrett’s lawyer described the case as one of the saddest he’s ever dealt with. 

“This was such a hard case for everyone,” Rory Ziv told reporters. “There are no winners here.” 

Ziv has told the judge that he plans to raise a charter argument when the case goes back to court for sentencing, which will likely occur in the fall.

He plans to argue that Starrett was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment while in custody at the Edmonton Remand Centre.

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