An attempted-murder trial that descended into chaos, including a profanity-riddled tirade and a challenge to fight a witness in the court parking lot, was declared a mistrial yesterday.
Calling it the only possible remedy, Madam Justice Nancy Mossip of Ontario Superior Court ordered the trial of Shawn Anthony Vassel to begin all over again. Mr. Vassel is charged with attempting to murder two men.
The trial originally began in the second week of December and according to Crown attorney Stephen Sheriff, was expected to last no more than a few days.
But problems began shortly afterward when Reid Rusonik, defence council for Mr. Vassel, decided to cross-examine one of the alleged victims, Todd Kealy.
Earlier this week, Mr. Sheriff said cross-examining Mr. Kealy was Mr. Rusonik's first mistake, since Mr. Kealy had up to that point presented no evidence at all that could harm Mr. Rusonik's client.
But that was certainly not Mr. Rusonik's most high-profile misstep.
On Dec. 14, while cross-examining Mr. Kealy, he repeatedly pushed the witness to say who he believed had tried to kill him. Mr. Kealy, a former biker, had previously testified that he did not know who had shot at him.
Eventually, Mr. Kealy responded to one of Mr. Rusonik's questions by saying, "If you want to put a noose around your neck, go ahead."
At the time, both Mr. Sheriff and Mr. Rusonik took the statement to be a threat directed at Mr. Rusonik. Mr. Sheriff registered his objection, but Mr. Rusonik lost his temper and told Mr. Kealy, "If you want to step outside right now we can do it the way you want to do it."
The courtroom erupted into chaos. As Judge Mossip called on Mr. Rusonik to stop, the defence lawyer hurled insults at the witness, calling him "fuckhead" and "you little shit."
After the outburst, Judge Mossip managed to salvage the trial by arranging for Mr. Rusonik to cease cross-examining Mr. Kealy, and not be present in the courtroom at the same time as the witness. Nathan Gorham, another defence lawyer, took over as Mr. Vassel's counsel.
Mr. Kealy later effectively admitted to lying under oath about not knowing the identity of his assailant -- he said his personal ethics code prevented him from being "a rat."
However, the trial fell apart again this week when Mr. Sheriff learned that Mr. Rusonik had approached Mr. Kealy in a court hallway and spoken to him. Exasperated, Mr. Sheriff decided to ask for a mistrial.
Making things even more bizarre, Mr. Rusonik decided to testify himself earlier this week to explain why he talked to Mr. Kealy even after Judge Mossip had made her order.
He described the conversation as a "human exchange," prompted simply by eye contact. He said he was fearful for his family's safety after the December confrontation. However, Mr. Sheriff argued that the conversation was a strategic attempt by Mr. Rusonik to get back into the courtroom -- that Mr. Rusonik offered Mr. Kealy a speedy cross-examination if Mr. Kealy did not object to him continuing the process.
Neither Mr. Rusonik nor Mr. Kealy was present for Judge Mossip's decision yesterday.
But responding to a phone message, Mr. Rusonik later said "the only comment I have in regard to this trial . . . is that the entire situation is extremely unfortunate, primarily because it delays the exoneration of an innocent man."
According to Mr. Gorham, Mr. Vassel wanted the current trial to continue and for Mr. Rusonik to remain as his lawyer.
Both the Crown and defence go back to square one next week.