Jan. 13, 2023, is the day Jefferey Kraft of Ponoka would have turned 24.
But instead of celebrating with him, Jeff’s family is left to grapple with the emotional aftermath of a three-year court process that ended with the person responsible for his death having his sentence reduced to just seven years.
An Alberta appeals court three-judge panel reduced Tyler John Campbell’s 11-year manslaughter sentence to seven years on Dec. 13, 2022.
Carrie Cocke, Jeff’s mother, said the decision was “a joke.”
“Jeff never got to appeal,” she said. “Now we just have to live with the loss, with the anger, while (Campbell) gets to have birthdays with his kid.”
Kraft died in Lacombe on Dec., 15, 2019, from a gunshot wound to the chest after a confrontation over an alleged debt.
Campbell pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a firearm in November, 2020. A second accomplice was discharged by the Crown.
The Crown prosecutor and defence lawyer submitted a joint sentencing submission of seven years in February, 2021.
The judge, however, rejected that submission on three separate occasions and sentenced Campbell to 11 years on Jan. 20, 2022.
The basis of the defence’s appeal was the court had agreed Campbell didn’t know the shotgun was loaded and that Campbell didn’t intend to pull the trigger.
Allen Kraft, Jeff’s father, said he “just didn’t understand” why the appeal court judges decided the sentencing judge’s wording was insufficient in his written decision.
Allen said Campbell pointed the shotgun at his son’s chest, and that should be enough.
Cocke said she wonders why the justice system would bother to put the family through three years of court dates just to have the appeal judges make their decision in 20 minutes.
“We knew right then that they were going to let him off … just because of words,” said Cocke.
While Campbell is still behind bars, with time served pre-custody and other factors, Cocke said they’ll be lucky if Campbell serves three years in jail, which to the family, means he might as well have gotten away with it.
The family say they’re heartbroken, discouraged and no longer have any faith in the justice system.
“It’s just luck of the draw, the deal you get,” said Cocke.
“If you bring a weapon, or a gun, or a knife, you have intent to use it, knowing it’s loaded or not,” said Caitlin Kraft, Jeff”s sister. “He had the intent to use it. That is how I feel.”
“They could have beat him up. They could have done something to his truck. They didn’t have to take the gun to threaten him. Apparently he didn’t even know it was Jeff,” said Cocke.
In the agreed statement of facts from court, it was stated Campbell had asked “Who is Jeff?” before pointing the firearm at Jeff’s chest and demanding payment for an alleged debt, when the firearm discharged.
“You have to ask, ‘Who is Jeff?’ Obviously you didn’t know from a whole in the ground who you were actually looking for,” said Caitlin.
“The accused … has more rights than the victim does,” said Cocke. “The families are just left to live their lives as best they can after their loss. We’re just supposed to accept everything that’s said to us and told to us by the courts, yet they do nothing to help us.”
“I understand that they aren’t working for the victim — they work for the queen or the king, but they should still have the victims’ best interest (in mind),” said Caitlin.
“The victim’s family should have more input on what goes on,” said Cocke, adding the Crown and the defence had already come to an agreement on the joint submission before the family was spoken to.
The family members agree there’s no real relief with the end of the court proceedings.
“I’d go to court every day if that meant a fight to get him a stronger sentence,” said Cocke.
Jeff’s family will mark his birthday with a balloon release at his gravesite, while singing Happy Birthday, along with cupcakes and shots.
Part of their tradition on Jeff’s birthday is to get together and eat his favourite foods. They’ll have cactus cut potatoes at Boston Pizza and a chicken bacon ranch casserole for dinner.
“We will always celebrate his birthday; what would have been,” said Caitlin. “The stars will shine extra bright tonight.”
– With files from Paul Cowley, Red Deer Advocate