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Manslaughter charges have effectively been dropped against four men charged in the shooting death of Jane Creba, a 15-year-old Toronto girl whose slaying on Boxing Day, 2005, caused a sensational outpouring of anger over gun violence in Canada's largest city.

The surprise move by the Ontario Crown Attorney's office came yesterday during pretrial hearings into the charges against the four men, who had been in court with three others charged with second-degree murder in the case. The murder charges are still proceeding, as is a manslaughter charge against another man.

Earlier this year, an additional accused, Jorrell Simpson-Rowe, was sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder in the shooting, which unfolded amid hordes of holiday shoppers on Yonge Street.

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Prosecutor Maurice Gillezeau said in court that a pretrial ruling had forced the Crown to reassess the manslaughter case against Shaun Thompson, 24, his brother Andre Thompson, 26, Andrew Smith, 24 and Vincent Davis, 29. That led to a decision that there was no reasonable chance of conviction.

As a result, the Crown brought forward a new indictment on the four manslaughter counts, but offered no evidence, prompting Madam Justice Gladys Pardu to dismiss the charges and acquit the accused. The move leaves open the Crown's option of appealing the pretrial rulings and thus reviving the charges later.

Outside court, lawyers for the four men said an emotionally charged atmosphere in Toronto after Jane's death, which followed a spike in gang-related gun killings during the city's so-called "summer of the gun," led the Crown to pursue weak cases against their clients, some of whom spent considerable time in jail awaiting justice.

Jane, who was shot in the back, was caught in crossfire between two rival gangs.

"Mr. Andre Thompson, my client, has been in custody for 47 months, since Boxing Day, 2005," lawyer Robert Chartier said. "He feels horrible for what happened to Jane, but he's maintained his innocence since day one, and today, the Crown did the right thing."

Being present at the scene of a crime is not an offence, Mr. Chartier said, "but it seems, in this situation, that they were guilty by association, by ... being around people who, unfortunately, had guns."

Steven Stauffer, lawyer for Shaun Thompson, said his client is "sorry for the tragedy that happened to the Creba family," but "has really never done anything wrong." With no criminal record and on bail since 2007, he was the only one to walk free from court yesterday; the others remained in jail on less-serious matters and were expected to be freed this week.

Mr. Chartier said "a lot could be learned from an inquiry" into why the Crown pursued the prosecutions. "I think it was just their presence at the scene and the hysteria that came with this event that led to those charges."

Andrew Smith's lawyer, David Midanik, went as far as to suggest race - all of the accused are black - fuelled the zeal to prosecute the men.

"The question arises ... whether the unconscious racism in the system reared its ugly head," said Mr. Midanik, who led the call for a public inquiry.

The other three lawyers were more circumspect. Mr. Chartier and Mr. Stauffer declined to engage the race question, while Gordon Cudjoe, the only black lawyer of the four, suggested any "racial overtones" to the case are more nuanced than the mere skin colour of the accused.

"I think the truth of the matter is it was a really upsetting case," Mr. Cudjoe said. "Perhaps we have to question how we are treating ourselves in society to the point where we're shooting in the streets on Boxing Day, and we have no answer for it."

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THE ACCUSED

Of 10 people charged with manslaughter or murder in connection with Jane Creba's death on Boxing Day, 2005, five have been exonerated, one convicted and four have yet to face trial. An 11th suspect faces extradition from Britain to Canada, and is yet to be charged.

Jorrell Simpson-Rowe was convicted of second-degree murder last December and sentenced in April to life in prison. The court found Mr. Simpson-Rowe did not fire the fatal bullet, but opened fire in a crowd during the incident that left Jane dead. He was 17 at the time but sentenced as an adult.

In October, 2007, a youth who was 17 at the time of the shooting was exonerated of manslaughter after a six-week preliminary hearing.

Yesterday, manslaughter charges against Andre Thompson, Shaun Thompson, Vincent Davis and Andrew Smith were dismissed during pretrial motions. The Crown saw no reasonable prospect for conviction.

Tyshaun Barnett, Louis Woodcock and Jeremiah Valentine await trial for second-degree murder.

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A man with the initials G.S., who can't be named because he was under 18 at the time of the shooting, is currently on trial for manslaughter.

Finally, an 11th accused, Dorian Wallace, faces extradition from Britain on a charge of manslaughter. Mr. Wallace was among six people wounded during the gunfight that caught Jane in the crossfire.

Anthony Reinhart

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