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Keith Richards’ ‘Lenient’ Sentence Protested

With no jail time, Richards’ sentence has been widely mocked in Canada

Rolling Stones Keith Richards

Keith Richards in Brussels, Belgium on May 6th, 1976.

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Keith Richards may be headed for more trouble in Canada. Convicted on October 24th for possession of twenty-two grams of heroin, Richards had been given a suspended sentence. But on November 21st, Federal Justice Minister Otto Lang instructed his officials to challenge this, and on November 22nd Federal Crown Prosecutor John Scollin won an extension until May 31st, 1979, to appeal the suspended sentence imposed by trial judge Lloyd Graburn. Scollin argued that the judge had failed to sufficiently weigh “the likely public impact . . . of the sentence on the respect for and compliance with the laws of Canada by other persons.” He may ask for a term of imprisonment “the upper limit of which is two years.”

Public reaction in Canada following Richards’ suspended sentence had been heated, and was further inflamed by the Rolling Stones guitarist’s remarks at a press conference. A reporter reminded Richards that he had once said, “They’re out to make rock & roll illegal.” Richards answered, “Well, they’ve missed another chance at it. Don’t lock up the rock.” Another reporter asked if he would think twice about coming back to Canada and Richards replied, “No, it could’ve happened anywhere. Mind you, you should do something about those Mounties, though.”

In the days after the trial many newspapers in Canada attacked Richards and judge Graburn. A columnist in the right-wing Toronto Sun mocked the judge and wrote, “Imagine the laughter among Rolling Stones fans throughout the world . . . Their hero got busted and got off.”

Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry received hundreds of letters and telegrams from irate citizens demanding that he do something about the lenient sentence. The attorney general forwarded the letters to the federal justice minister, who was getting similar letters.

Keith Richards Meets the Mounties and Faces the Music

Politicians were quick to react. In Ottawa, former Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker said in a speech before the House of Commons that the sentence “will be an encouragement to potential wrongdoers all over this nation.” And he suggested in a phone interview that federal officials had tried their best to ignore the Richards case. “They had their reasons [which were] high connections in political life.”

A report written by Constable A.J. Hachinski, one of the officers who arrested Richards, cites a meeting in which a senior Justice Department lawyer “suggested that a plea to simple possession of heroin be taken. [The original charges against Richards had been possession of cocaine and possession of heroin with intent to traffick.] Superintendent D. Heaton of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police [RCMP] objected strongly, and after lengthy discussion, it was decided that we would proceed with the possession for the purpose [of trafficking] charge.”

The charge against Richards was eventually reduced to simple possession, but a senior lawyer for the Justice Department says that the decision to accept the reduced plea was made almost six months after the meeting between Justice Department lawyers and the RCMP. And Richard O’Hagan, Trudeau’s press aide, said there had been “no intervention of any kind” on the part of the prime minister or anyone in his office.

Austin Cooper, Keith Richards’ Canadian lawyer, would not comment on the possible appeal.

This is a story from the January 25, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.


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