WINDSOR, N.S. - A Nova Scotia man admitted he set fire to a two-metre cross on an interracial couple's lawn earlier this year, but his lawyer argued the act on its own isn't enough to prove the 20-year-old was inciting racial hatred.
Justin Rehberg appeared before a tightly packed courtroom in Windsor, pleading guilty to criminal harassment of the couple who lived in the small, nearby community of Poplar Grove.
But Rehberg maintains he is innocent of inciting racial hatred, a charge to which he has pleaded not guilty.
Crown lawyer Darrell Carmichael presented a 15-page brief that argued history shows a cross-burning is a potent symbol that inflames racism and "was likely to lead to further breaches of the peace."
In North America, cross burning is "inextricably intertwined with the history of the Ku Klux Klan," Carmichael said.
"From the inception of the ... Klan, cross-burnings have been used to communicate both threats of violence and messages of shared ideology," Carmichael told provincial court.
But defence lawyer Chris Manning said while his client's action was "nasty, crude and contemptible," there was no evidence that it stirred up racial hatred among others. To the contrary, residents organized an anti-racism march, Manning said.
"We have an act of burning a cross but we have no incitement of others," he said. "That key element is lacking here."
Two other charges — uttering threats and mischief — were dropped.
Before making their arguments, the Crown and defence laid out an agreed statement of facts.
The statement says that just after midnight on Feb. 21, Shayne Howe, who is black, and Michelle Lyon, his white spouse, and their five children saw the flaming cross in their front yard in the rural community.
"One of the older children heard someone in the area of the cross shout, 'Die, nigger, die.' All of the occupants of the house who were old enough to understand took this to be a threatening statement of racial hatred," said the statement.
"Howe's immediate reaction was to grab a baseball bat and rush out of the house to confront the cross-burners, but he had not gone very far before he thought better of it and went back inside.
"The accused ... had planned this act at least two days before and had assembled the cross in advance and dragged it down the road."
Outside court, the couple said they considered moving away from the community after the incident but have been encouraged by other residents to stay.
Still, Lyon said she remains worried about going out alone at night.
"I'm always afraid of what's going to happen," she said. "I don't go out usually after dark. I'm home, doors are locked, alarms set. I'm very diligent on safety in the home and safety when I'm outside the home, only because there is a lot of media coverage on this and there are a lot of supporters on their side."
She said she's hopeful the case will set a precedent that deters cross-burning.
"This sets a standard of what people will tolerate and what people won't tolerate," she said.
"It's a much bigger picture than just the two of us."
Carmichael said he believes the case marks the first time someone in Canada has faced criminal charges as a result of burning a cross.
Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University, said the verdict will help define racial hatred laws.
"It requires a high level of proof on the part of the Crown," MacKay said. "But I think it's worthwhile given the ongoing issues in the country on questions of race, to get some greater clarity ... In that sense, it's a useful test case."
Provincial court Judge Claudine MacDonald adjourned Rehberg's case until Nov. 5. That's when she is expected to rule on his not guilty plea and set a date for sentencing on the guilty plea.
Rehberg's brother, Nathan, is also charged in the case. His trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 10.
This incident occured in February, the man admitted to this act a few weeks ago, his sentencing will take place Nov. 5th.