Jury weighs fate of Toronto officer who shot teen on streetcar
Diana Mehta, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, January 20, 2016 7:46AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 20, 2016 5:24PM EST
TORONTO -- The fate of a Toronto police officer is now in the hands of a jury that will decide whether he ignored other options and acted as "a hothead and a bully" when he gunned down a teen on an empty streetcar, or whether he pulled the trigger in self-defence.
Const. James Forcillo has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and attempted murder in the death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim in July 2013 -- an incident that was captured on cellphone video and went viral online.
Hundreds of people, including members of Yatim's family, took to the streets to decry what they called police brutality, prompting the city's police chief to launch a review of the officers' use of force and their response to emotionally disturbed people.
Defence lawyers tried to have Forcillo's trial moved to a different city, arguing a jury selected in Toronto might be biased given the street protests and the widespread media coverage of the shooting, but their request was denied.
When the trial began in October, Crown prosecutors argued Forcillo's actions weren't necessary or reasonable, while his lawyer called those actions justified and carried out in self-defence.
The bedrock of the Crown's case was the video and audio collected from various surveillance cameras, cellphones and police radio on the night Forcillo came face-to-face with Yatim.
The jury has heard that Yatim had consumed ecstasy at some point before boarding a streetcar in July 2013.
After about 10 minutes without incident, the teen exposed himself, drew a small knife and swiped it towards a young woman seated near him, sparking a panicked exodus, court heard.
The jury has heard that Forcillo -- who had been with the force for three and a half years at the time -- arrived first on scene, drew his gun and screamed repeatedly at Yatim to drop the knife. The teen refused and hurled expletives at a growing number of officers outside the streetcar.
When Yatim took a few steps back from the top of the streetcar steps, Forcillo issued a warning for him not to take another step forward. Yatim then moved back to where he had been standing and Forcillo fired three times, causing the teen to collapse.
The jury has heard that Forcillo then fired six more shots at Yatim.
What the jury didn't hear, however, was a theory from Forcillo's defence lawyer that Yatim committed "suicide by cop" on the night he died.
Peter Brauti hoped to argue that Yatim was depressed, using drugs and cared very little about his life when he pulled out his knife.
The lawyer suggested Yatim didn't comply with police orders because he didn't care about his own life and was prepared to act in a way that could cause police to take actions resulting in his death.
Superior Court Justice Edward Then, who presided over the case, refused to allow the theory, saying Yatim's state of mind was unknown to Forcillo and played no part in the officer's decision to shoot.
Yatim was hit by eight out of nine bullets fired by Forcillo -- one in the first volley of shots caused a "catastrophic" injury to his heart killing him. He was also hit in the spine, arm, groin and abdomen area, court heard.
Forcillo took the stand in his own defence, saying he never wanted to kill anyone but feared an imminent attack from the knife-toting Yatim, which was why -- in accordance with all his training -- he fired his gun.
In recollecting the encounter, Forcillo said he perceived Yatim as being unafraid and ready to "fight till the end" when confronted by police.
Forcillo said his concerns appeared founded when he saw the teen jerk his switchblade towards him -- a moment that convinced him Yatim was about to attack.
The Crown has called Forcillo a "hothead and a bully" who had viable alternatives to lethal force but didn't use them.
Conversely, Forcillo's defence lawyer accused the Crown of trying to "criminalize a judgment call" made by a first responder and said Yatim's own behaviour had resulted in his death.
Then instructed the jury Wednesday to keep an open mind to arrive at a just verdict.
"It is not enough for you to believe that officer Forcillo is probably or likely guilty," he told the panel of 11 jurors. "The Crown must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that officer Forcillo is guilty of the offences with which he is charged."