One week before Winston Sayson logged his last day as a Crown prosecutor, he mulled the age-old question: what will my legacy be?
In short, after 30 years on the job – despite all of the offenders he’s won convictions against, all of the victims he’s helped on the long journey to healing and all of the accolades – it’s out of his hands, he says.
“I would say that whatever my legacy is, is going to be decided by other people,” he told Peace Arch News.
“I would like to hope that my legacy is I have left the justice system a kinder place; that I have helped increase the excellence of the criminal justice system by the work that I did, and that I have helped the victims of crime get through what they needed to do and to seek healing in their lives – all in the context of following the rules of our criminal justice system.
“I gave it my best. I gave it 100 per cent.”
Sayson, 56, retired last month, wrapping up his career with sentencing proceedings connected to two vehicular-homicide files.
Between them, the drivers – one who was driving dangerously, one who got behind the wheel impaired – killed three innocent people.
And while it’s commonplace for people to describe all manner of collisions as “accidents,” Sayson said the term has no place in any drunk-driving narrative.
“I think it is inaccurate to label the consequences of a drunk driver killing innocent people as an accident,” he said during a break from the Sept. 27 hearing in Surrey Provincial Court.
“It never is an accident, because in Canada, every person knows you do not drink and drive. When a person chooses to drink, and chooses to drive, and chooses to drive at that rate of speed that we saw in this case, it is a recipe for disaster,” he said.
“Do not minimize it by calling it an accident.”
The conviction in his voice will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the prosecutor’s work, much of which has focused on high-profile files that have consistently been on the radar of local and regional media – cases of sexual assault, domestic violence and child pornography.
Ones that residents of the Semiahmoo Peninsula will likely recall include that of Delta woman Carol Berner, who, while driving impaired, struck and killed Crescent Beach preschooler Alexa Middelaer as she fed a horse at the side of a Ladner road in 2008; truck driver Glen Theriault, whose actions behind the wheel of a dump truck killed South Surrey resident and Langley school-bus driver Jim Neiss in 2011; and George Heinz Kraus, the Laronde Elementary teacher who said he didn’t believe he was doing wrong by possessing child-pornography images because the children depicted were from Russia and Ukraine.
“It’s not hurting anyone… they’re all overseas,” Kraus told PAN shortly after news of his arrest was made public.
Sayson said another case out of South Surrey, that of border services officer Daniel Johnson Greenhalgh – who was convicted in 2010 of sexual assault and breach of trust after illegally strip-searching women at the Douglas (Peace Arch) border – stands out for him both “personally and professionally.”
The personal aspect relates to Sayson’s experiences growing up in the Philippines; in particular, the unjust imprisonment of his father under martial law, prior to the family’s emigration to Canada.
“I had a deep fear of police officers, a deep fear of border and customs officers, a deep fear of the military, because of the excesses that were committed,” Sayson said.
That historical fear made his successful prosecution of Greenhalgh – and other cases in which he and other civilians have, without fear, prosecuted those in positions of authority – “really, really big.”
“Many Canadians would probably take it for granted, but coming from a Third World country, to actually have that kind of power with no fear of prosecuting these kind of people, reflects really well about the health of our justice system – notwithstanding its deficiencies.”
What has perhaps been less-reported by media, but touted by various groups over the years, including the Surrey Women’s Centre, is Sayson’s work with victims; efforts to help them successfully navigate the difficult court process that can be a critical step both in their healing and in reaching a successful conclusion in court.
Many times, those victims were children who had been sexually violated by someone they should have been able to trust – their father, an uncle, a teacher, a pastor.
In order to do his work, Sayson had to help the victim get to a place where they could feel safe sharing with strangers what happened to them; develop a rapport with them, and gain their trust so that when the time came to give their evidence, it was the best evidence possible.
“Of course, we recognize that when we ask a child to come forward and tell their story, we are by its very definition re-traumatizing them, because we’re asking them to say something they don’t want to talk about, they don’t want to think about. And now they have to do it in front of a courtroom, with kids coming in (on school field trips) watching court,” he said. “That’s hard.”
In one case, where a child was manipulated into keeping her abuse quiet, Sayson’s efforts helped her find the courage to speak openly about why she didn’t initially report it.
“Now that she found it safe to explain… she had the freedom to do so and it ended up making her evidence more convincing, more compelling, more powerful.”
In 2010, Sayson was celebrated with the Police Victim Services of B.C.’s Criminal Justice System Leadership Award. In nominating Sayson for the distinction, PVS president Kim Gramlich extolled his dedication to addressing the needs of victims.
“He is always highly empathetic to the pain, trauma and loss that victims and families experience and he always has victims at the heart of his decisions and actions,” Gramlich wrote.
And while most people likely cannot fathom why someone would engross themselves in files of such evil over and over and over again – files that, in Sayson’s words, “eat your soul” – Sayson said he gravitated toward them “because of my belief and my passion in seeking justice for those who have been victimized.”
“In general, a huge proportion of victims are women and children, and I will speak for them, I will seek justice for them.”
The dedication, however, did not come without a price.
Sayson hadn’t originally planned to retire this year. He and his wife had both targeted 2023 for the milestone – the year that Sayson would have earned his maximum pension.
But the years of dark cases, of having to view “extremely disturbing” images, took a toll – one that came to a head about two years ago, and led Sayson to seek professional help.
“It was triggered by a (sexual assault) case of extreme brutality,” he told PAN. “The acts they did to the child was monstrous.
“That case shook me to my core, to see the gravity and the depth of evil being perpetrated against our fellow citizens. And seeing the trauma on the body, on the mind, on the soul and on the spirit of the child would break any human being’s heart.”
Asking for help, he said, was not something he’d ever envisioned before, believing it to be a sign of weakness.
“I was wrong,” he said. “I now know, belatedly, that if you are constantly exposed to these things, it will have an impact on you. To claim otherwise would be making the mistake that I did.”
He said he shared his personal struggles – which he emphasized will “never” be greater than that of victims – “to show the human side of the prosecution service.”
“To demonstrate… I am normal.”
And, because he wants others who choose to pursue a career as a prosecutor to know the “very noble calling” is one that requires resiliency.
“I want people to know that, hey, this job will take a toll on you and, hey, it’s OK to seek help. It is OK, it is normal for a person to be impacted by these type of files. But there are ways to take care of yourself and there are ways that you can shield yourself from the full force of the impact of doing these cases.
“There should not be, and there is no shame in seeking help.”
Sitting in his office the week before his last day, Sayson only had to look across the room to be reminded that his work has had a positive impact.
A framed poem was a gift from sexual assault survivor, Sarah Shinn. Her words, penned after the conviction and sentence of her abuser, bear a powerful message of hope, healing and appreciation.
“It felt like he put his hand out, and saved me from drowning…” it reads, in part. “He made us a promise,
to stick by our side, and he sure did that, which ultimately saved my life. “
Shinn and Sayson have kept in touch, and her journey to healing – she is now married and has a young son – is something he holds dear.
But while individual cases stand out for him, Sayson says it’s the bigger picture that will matter to the majority.
“People will not remember the files I did, but it is what have I done to serve the people of B.C., the people of Surrey, the people of White Rock,” he said.
“I pray that what I have done has made Canada a better place than when I arrived.”
– with files from Tom Zytaruk