A Hamilton courtroom erupted with emotion after a jury found a 28-year-old former reservist not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of an Indigenous man who broke into his truck.
Peter Khill stared straight ahead as the verdict was read out Wednesday morning after less than a day of deliberations. His wife, Melinda Benko, who is six months pregnant, broke down in tears, embracing another woman in the front row.
Across the courtroom, family and friends of the victim, Jonathan Styres, shook their heads. The mother of his children, wearing a “Justice For Jon” T-shirt, crumpled in her seat, moaning. She had to be carried out of the courtroom by her mother and a friend. Others cursed openly and walked out.
After the room cleared, Mr. Khill was escorted out a back door by security.
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“I think it’s the classic abundance of caution,” defence lawyer Jeffrey Manishen told reporters outside the courthouse. “It was a highly emotionally charged morning.”
Mr. Khill had testified he was acting in self defence, falling back on the training he received as a military reservist five years earlier. He fired only after he thought Mr. Styres was about to shoot him, he said, as a way to “neutralize” the threat.
Mr. Styres died in the driveway of Mr. Khill’s Binbrook, Ont., home, where he had been trying to steal a pickup truck around 3 a.m. on Feb. 4, 2016.
Mr. Khill and his girlfriend had woken to noises coming from the driveway. When Mr. Khill, then 26, looked out his window, he saw his truck lights were on.
He grabbed his shotgun from the bedroom closet, loaded it and headed outside. He moved quietly between the house and garage, emerging into the driveway where he saw a man leaning into the passenger side of his truck.
“Hey, hands up,” he said he yelled. He said Mr. Styres turned toward him, his arms rising. Mr. Khill fired two blasts.
Mr. Styres, a 29-year-old father of two from Ohsweken, Ont., on the Six Nations reserve, was hit once in the chest and once in the back of his right shoulder. He died almost instantly, collapsing onto his back in the muddy driveway.
The Crown called it a “cruel” killing – one that could have been avoided if Mr. Khill had just called 911 from inside his home. It is “inexcusable” that he did not, assistant Crown attorney Steve O’Brien argued.
Mr. Manishen argued Mr. Khill was “reasonable” in his belief that Mr. Styres had a gun, because of the way he had turned toward him. And his response to that perceived threat was also reasonable, the defence argued – particularly given Mr. Khill’s military background.
After a two-week trial, with testimony from more than a dozen witnesses, including Mr. Khill himself, jurors began deliberating Tuesday afternoon. By Wednesday morning, they reached their verdict.
This was a “tough” and “emotional” trial, Superior Court Justice Stephen Glithero acknowledged Wednesday, as he thanked the jurors and then the spectators who have filled the courtroom.
Tensions were high, with family and supporters for Mr. Khill and Mr. Styres seated on opposite sides of the courtroom. The day before, two men from the Styres side had confronted Mr. Khill in the hallway before special constables quickly intervened.
From the beginning, comparisons were drawn between this case and the controversial trial of Gerald Stanley, a Saskatchewan farmer whose acquittal in the fatal shooting of Colten Boushie, a Cree man, on his rural property, sparked outrage in February.
In that case, Mr. Stanley’s defence team had argued that the shooting was accidental; the result of a fluke “hangfire.”
During the jury selection process in this trial, prospective jurors were asked whether the fact that the accused is a white man and the victim was an Indigenous man would affect their ability to approach the case without bias or prejudice.
In his closing arguments Monday, Mr. Manishen told the jurors that race has nothing to do with this case – a sentiment he echoed to reporters Wednesday after the verdict.
Nevertheless, it is a case that First Nations leaders have been watching closely.
Six Nations Elected Chief Ava Hill released a statement Wednesday, expressing “shock and disappointment” at the verdict, and calling for changes to the criminal justice system.
“Reconciliation demands that the unique vulnerability of Indigenous peoples to violent victimization, including the existence of stereotypes in Canadian society generally, be meaningfully addressed,” the statement reads.
The Six Nations Elected Council is also calling on the Ministry of the Attorney-General to appeal the verdict.
“The taking of [Mr. Styres’s] life was a violent tragedy – a loss that will continue to be endured by his family and community in the absence of the fulfillment of his roles. Accountability is important within Haudenosaunee legal principles,” the statement reads.
As she left the courthouse with family Wednesday, Mr. Styres’s mother declined to comment. Homicide detectives and prosecutors on the case also declined to comment.
In a written statement provided to The Globe and Mail, Lindsay Hill, the mother of Mr. Styres’s two daughters, said that Mr. Styres had been “looking forward to all the experiences with the girls.”
“He deserved a chance to be a father to them,” Ms. Hill said. “Sophia and Zoey deserved to have their father.”
That chance was taken from all three of them, she says. Despite the struggles mentioned in court, Ms. Hill said that Mr. Styres “had an extremely big heart” and was a “very loving person.”
“So much was taken from my daughters,” she wrote. “There was no need for their father’s life to be taken.”
Peter Khill is on trial for the murder of Jon Styres. The audio captures a distraught Melinda Benko, Mr. Khill's girlfriend at the time, explaining to emergency officials the sequence of events leading up to Mr. Styres's death. The call has been edited for length and to remove personal details.
The Globe and Mail