The lawyer for a former police officer who was convicted in the shooting that killed Sammy Yatim on a Toronto streetcar nine years ago wants a coroner’s inquest to examine whether the teen’s death amounted to “suicide by cop” – a last-minute legal manoeuvre that has derailed the proceedings.
The inquest into the death of Mr. Yatim, an 18-year-old who was shot several times by a Toronto Police officer during a mental-health crisis in 2013, was scheduled to begin Nov. 14. On the eve of that start date, the lawyer for former Toronto Police constable James Forcillo – who was convicted of attempted murder – submitted a motion requesting that the inquest scope be expanded “to address the issue of whether Mr. Yatim provoked a fatal police response as an instance of ‘suicide by cop.’”
Bryan Badali argued that text messages and search history from Mr. Yatim’s phone should be included as evidence in the inquest in order to understand his state of mind leading up to the fatal confrontation.
“Mr. Yatim’s state of mind is a material issue in this inquest,” he argued, at a hearing Wednesday.
Mr. Badali’s motion was vehemently opposed by others with standing at the inquest, including Mr. Yatim’s family, the Toronto Police Service, the Toronto police board and The Empowerment Council, a mental-health advocacy group. The former police officer and his lawyer were accused of “victim blaming,” and multiple people noted that the materials being proposed for inclusion were rejected at Mr. Forcillo’s trial for being speculative.
“Our son and brother is gone forever and should not be on trial,” lawyer Jonah Waxman said, relaying a statement from Mr. Yatim’s father.
“With this motion, Mr. Forcillo is pointing his finger at Sammy – when he has already used that same finger on the trigger of his Glock nine times. The last nine years have been painful, and this effort to disgrace Sammy’s memory only worsens that pain.”
Asha James, who is representing Mr. Yatim’s mother, said it was an abuse of process to put forward the motion at the last minute.
Mr. Yatim was shot multiple times by Mr. Forcillo, then a constable, as the teen stood alone on a streetcar holding a small knife on the evening of July 27, 2013. The case sparked public outrage after video footage of the shooting circulated on social media, showing the officer continuing to shoot Mr. Yatim, even as he lay dying on the floor of the streetcar.
Police had been called after Mr. Yatim, in a mental-health crisis, pulled out the knife on the streetcar and exposed himself. By the time Mr. Forcillo arrived, Mr. Yatim was alone on the streetcar. Mr. Forcillo shot multiple times, causing Mr. Yatim to fall to the floor. Mr. Forcillo continued to fire and another officer used a taser.
It was that second volley of shots – as the teen was already down and dying – that led the jury to convict Mr. Forcillo of attempted murder. He was acquitted of second-degree murder in Mr. Yatim’s death.
The officer who tasered Mr. Yatim initially faced an internal disciplinary charge, but that was withdrawn following mediation with the slain teen’s family.
Mr. Forcillo was later convicted of perjury for claiming to be living with his ex-wife while on bail awaiting his appeal, when he had in fact moved in with his new fiancée.
He was sentenced to a total of 6½ years for both offences and is now out on parole.
In Ontario, an inquest is mandatory any time someone dies in police custody. In addition to coming up with recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future, inquest juries are also given the task of determining the manner of death. In his motion, Mr. Badali writes that the chief coroner’s own guidelines “recognize that situations like the one involving Mr. Forcillo and Mr. Yatim may contain elements of both homicide and suicide.”
“There is clear evidence that Mr. Yatim taunted Mr. Forcillo and other officers, and repeatedly and knowingly disobeyed clear commands, even in the face of a warning that he would be shot if he did not comply,” Mr. Badali’s motion reads. “In that context, excluding the evidence of Mr. Yatim’s state of mind leading up to this confrontation would artificially tip the scales in favour of a homicide finding. But that is the jury’s determination to make.”
David Cameron, presiding coroner, expressed disappointment that the inquest – which was scheduled to last 10 days and hear from 11 witnesses – was being derailed before it could even begin. He said he expects to deliver a ruling on the motion by the end of 2022.