ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A young Newfoundland man who robbed a human skull from a cemetery and kept it in his possession for more than a year as a “curiosity item” has been sentenced to four months in jail.
In a hearing Wednesday, provincial court Judge David Orr also ordered Lucas Dawe not to re-enter the Anglican cemetery where he took the skull from inside a mausoleum-style tomb.
The skull was found by police on April 6, shocking the small community of Conception Bay South, about 20 minutes from St. John’s.
Dawe, 20, who pleaded guilty last month to interfering with human remains, expressed remorse for the incident on Wednesday before the judge delivered his sentence.
“I was intoxicated, drunk, when I did it, and I do feel bad, and I’m sorry for doing it,” Dawe told the judge. “It’s no excuse.”
The judge and lawyers for both sides remarked on the unique details of the case, pointing to the lack of legal precedent from which to draw sentencing recommendations.
Rumours of the unusual story have swirled since police launched an investigation into what they called “quite old” skeletal remains in April, but Wednesday’s hearing provided the first official account of how the human skull came to be found beside a walking trail.
Reading the facts to the court, Crown prosecutor Jessica Gallant said the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary received a complaint early on April 6 from an acquaintance of Dawe who reported seeing him with the skull.
The witness told police that Dawe had tried to get in his truck while holding a skull, which was missing its jaw bone and was wrapped in a sweater. The man said he did not want Dawe to get in with the skull and agreed to meet him later.
The man said he saw Dawe leave the skull in the woods near a trail by the Conception Bay Highway shortly after.
The witness said Dawe told him he had taken the skull from a graveyard on Church Road about 18 months earlier, saying he reached into a naturally eroded opening in the tomb to remove it. He said Dawe told him he poured boiling water on the skull to clean it and kept it as a “curiosity item.”
The witness told police he suggested Dawe should call a crisis line and said Dawe told him he wanted to return the skull to the grave.
Police retrieved the skull later on April 6 and examined the scene at All Saints’ cemetery, determining that the grave belonged to a married couple, John and Mary Butler, who had died sometime in the mid-1800s.
After establishing the facts, lawyers on both sides discussed the rare nature of the case and the fact that the charge of “interfering with human remains” usually accompanies cases of homicide.
To give context to Dawe’s case, Rev. Wayne Parsons, rector at All Saints Anglican church which oversees the graveyard, was sworn in as a witness to speak to the incident’s impact on the community.
“We want to reiterate today the sacredness of cemeteries, and those who go on before us in the faith, that their final resting spots are sacred and not to be disturbed under any circumstances,” Parsons said.
He said the violation has impacted the church and the community, but he also offered his support for Dawe’s rehabilitation into society. He said the church wishes Dawe well in moving forward.
“Obviously as a church, at the end of the day, we have to bring light into sometimes very dark places in society. The church is called to do that,” Parsons said, before nodding at Dawe as he left the witness stand.
Ken Hollett, Dawe’s lawyer, said his client had been well-behaved in prison since his arrest on April 9, participating in addiction treatment and other programs. He commented on his client’s young age and said Dawe had reflected on his life while in prison, deciding he wanted to live a more sober life upon release.
Gallant agreed that Dawe’s remorse is a mitigating factor and mentioned his age and challenges with alcohol, but she reiterated the seriousness of disrespecting the remains of a human being.
“This really is a crime against the community in many regards,” Gallant said. “I think it’s fair to say that the broader community is concerned by this type of behaviour, and regardless of your religious or cultural background, our respect for human remains is something that seems to be cross-cultural.”
Judge Orr said the removal of human remains from a grave is the most troubling aspect of the offence, and denunciation is necessary. Orr mentioned Dawe’s age, his guilty plea and his efforts to rehabilitate himself as mitigating factors, and noted that the grave in question was quite old.
Orr sentenced Dawe to 120 days for interfering with the remains and an additional 30 days for unrelated theft offences. With credit for 108 days already served, Dawe faces 42 more days in jail. He was also sentenced to 12 months of probation upon release.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press