After death deemed homicide, Ashley Smith family calls for new criminal investigation
Published Thursday, December 19, 2013 6:03AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, December 19, 2013 9:46PM EST
Just hours after a coroner's jury declared the prison-cell death of Ashley Smith a homicide, the New Brunswick teen’s family is now calling for investigators to re-open their criminal investigation into prison officials.
Smith, 19, choked herself to death with a cloth strip in her cell at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., in 2007. Guards who videotaped her death testified that they did not intervene in time to save Smith's life because they were under strict orders from prison management not to enter her cell.
On Thursday, members of a coroner's inquest declared her death a homicide. While the finding is neutral and not an indication of criminal liability, the jury said it was their belief that Smith's death was neither a simple suicide nor an accidental death, but rather other persons contributed to her death.
Smith’s mother Coralee said she now believes “the whole story has been told.”
“Someone besides Ashley was responsible for her death -- now there is some accountability and some transparency,” she said in a phone interview Thursday.
Surveillance videos show Ashley Smith repeatedly tranquilized against her will, and at one point being threatened with having her face duct-taped.
“I think Ashley’s memory has been vindicated, I think it still has to go a bit further for justice to be done,” Coralee Smith said.
Speaking just after the decision was announced, family lawyer Julian Falconer said it's now time to seek more accountability for Smith's death.
"We, on behalf of the Smith family, call for authorities to reopen the criminal investigations into those who issued the order," Falconer told reporters outside the coroner's court in Toronto. "Those who made the order not to go into her cell – the deputy warden, the warden, those above – have yet to truly be investigated or have yet to truly answer for their actions."
He added there was no need for a similar investigation of the guards themselves.
The inquest jury released more than 100 recommendations aimed at preventing incidents similar to Smith's death in the future, including that Smith's story be used a case study for all Correctional Service of Canada staff and management.
They also recommended that all female inmates be accessed by a psychologist within 72 hours of admission to any penitentiary, to screen for mental-health issues. And they called for the abolishment of indefinite solitary confinement.
For almost 11 months, the five-member coroner's jury listened to thousands of hours of testimony from more than 80 witnesses including prison guards, psychiatrists and Smith's own family. They also reviewed hundreds of exhibits on the teen's treatment while in federal custody.
The inquest heard several bits of stunning evidence, including that the Grand Valley warden and deputy demanded that reports into incidents involving Smith be falsified, in order to play down the amount of force that was used against her.
They also watched several shocking videos, including images of a hooded Smith being duct-taped to her airplane seat, guards in riot gear restraining and pepper-spraying her and injecting her with sedatives against her will, and finally, the video of Smith turning blue and dying on the concrete floor of her segregation cell after strangling herself.
The videos also helped reveal how ill-equipped prison staff were in coping with Smith, who had a long history of self-harm and appeared to suffer from severe borderline personality disorder.
The videos became key to the inquest, although it took several years of in-fighting to get them released. The Correctional Service of Canada, along with the Grand Valley Institution, fought for years to keep the videos out of public view, while the Smith family insisted the images were crucial to the inquiry.
Presiding coroner Dr. John Carlisle eventually ordered the videos be screened.
Smith was first incarcerated at age 15 after she was given a 90-day sentence for throwing crab apples at a postal carrier. But a number of escalating in-custody incidents kept her behind bars until her death. In the 11 months leading up to her death, Smith was transferred 17 times between nine institutions.