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This comes more than a day late and a dollar short, but is something I feel a curious obligation to write.

When the manslaughter trial of four young Toronto Police officers began in September, I'd hoped to cover it from start to finish. Alas, it was not to be: In the newspaper business, we are correctly known for having the attention span of the average toddler, and other stories kept taking me away from the downtown courthouse.

These were, in the main, self-assigned. I was new at The Globe and greedy to get better play and establish myself, and therein, I suppose, lies the source of my guilty sense of owed duty now.

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The officers were charged in the sudden death of a man named Otto Vass, a fireplug of a fellow who had virtually all his life battled a serious mental illness, the final diagnosis of which was bipolar disorder, or what used to be called manic depression.

Mr. Vass, when on his meds and well, managed to put together a pretty respectable life: He had a little business; he managed apartments; he married twice, had children, and as this man, he was much adored. I met one of his sons, Attila, who is a splendid young man.

But as with many who are seriously mentally ill, Mr. Vass often went off the drugs that kept him stable -- these are major drugs, with major side effects, many of them awful -- and when he did, he was a different guy, volatile, even aggressive, and occasionally violent.

And as this man, Mr. Vass was alarming, as the evidence at trial showed, to his neighbours, tenants and also his wives, even frightening, and occasionally impossible to handle -- one hospital report, the notes made years ago when no one had an inkling they might ever be produced at a criminal trial, shows that Mr. Vass was once so out of control it took 11 staff to subdue him.

That is the broad background to what happened, outside a west-end 7-Eleven, in the early hours of Aug. 9, 2000.

The narrower one is that, in the weeks preceding his death, Zsuzsanna Vass tried her damnedest to get her troubled husband help. By this time, she knew too well the signs that he was unravelling, and she dragged him several times to hospital, trying vainly to have him admitted.

And at its narrowest, the background is that, on the last day of his life, Mr. Vass was clearly in the throes of his illness: He abandoned his running car on a busy road, believing there was a bomb inside and that he smelled napalm; he sucker-punched a young man in a car in the 7-Eleven parking lot, and was in turn punched back; he was following other patrons around enough to make them nervous.

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Finally, the store clerks called 911, a call that, because of their imperfect command of English and the fact that things had calmed down, was translated on the police radio as an "unwanted guest" call.

That's police jargon for a fellow who won't leave a premise -- period.

And that is all the young officers -- first the pair of Rob Lemaitre and Phil Duncan; later, after they had radioed for help, Fil Bevilacqua and Nam Le -- knew when they arrived at the store.

In brief, what happened is that Constables Lemaitre and Duncan politely approached Mr. Vass; cheerfully, he followed them outside the 7-Eleven; and then, abruptly, he was punching Constable Lemaitre in the face and the battle was on. At some point after he had belatedly been subdued and handcuffed, Mr. Vass turned blue and stopped breathing.

The case fell to the province's Special Investigations Unit, the independent agency that probes cases where civilians die in police custody and that has its own checkered past, in the main as appearing overly eager to prosecute police officers, sometimes heavy-handed, and oft incompetent.

In recent years, the SIU got better at its job, but the agency's early shortcomings dog it, and I think it fair to say that as an institution, it is hungry for a conviction, hard to come by with police officers, even when richly deserved.

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This, however, was never such a case.

For the longest time after the officers were criminally charged, the SIU still had no identifiable cause of death. Only belatedly did a respected pathologist determine that Mr. Vass had died as a result of a fat embolism, ostensibly loosened by the blows he took that night, lodging in his lungs.

But it was a controversial cause of death; it was obvious from evidence at trial that the SIU had been champing at the bit for something upon which they could hang their prosecutorial hat, and even at its highest, the fat embolism theory was just that -- a theory.

And, in fact, a respected defence pathologist rejected it utterly: Mr. Vass, he said, died because the years of mental illness, the toll on his body and the fury of the battle he waged that night had basically caused his heart to give out.

The eyewitness accounts were a mixed bag. All such testimony is suspect because at times of crisis, even honest people see things differently. In this case, it was particularly dubious because two key eyewitnesses never testified (one had left Canada; another had disappeared), a couple had axes to grind, and because of the whopping publicity surrounding Mr. Vass's death.

I remember, at the time, being told by a woman who claimed to have seen the fight that Mr. Vass's teeth had been knocked out, and that she had spotted some of them in the parking lot; in truth, not a tooth in his mouth was out of place.

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And nowhere was it factored into the equation the nature of the four officers, who are unusual in so many regards -- all well-educated and unhardened; culturally diverse (two whites, one Asian, one of mixed racial ancestry), and palpably gentle.

They were acquitted on Nov. 6, but in the pictures that appeared the next day, they looked frankly haunted, as well they might -- their shining careers had been halted for three years, and perhaps permanently tainted.

The system worked in my view, barely, because the right verdict was reached. But it served no one well -- not four fine officers; not those who loved Mr. Vass, and certainly not Mr. Vass himself, who in psychiatric shorthand was never a bad man, just a mad one.

cblatchford@globeandmail.ca

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