Yatim inquest derailed by convicted officer’s 11th-hour ‘suicide by cop’ motion

The 11th-hour motion that derailed a coroner’s inquest into the death Sammy Yatim last week was brought by the cop who killed him — a last-minute request by his lawyer to allow the jury to hear evidence about “suicide by cop.”

One day before a coroner’s inquest into Yatim’s July 2013 shooting death was set to begin, the lawyer representing former Toronto police officer James Forcillo filed a motion asking Dr. David Cameron — the coroner overseeing the inquest — to expand the scope of the inquest to “address the issue of whether Mr. Yatim provoked a fatal police response as an instance of ‘suicide by cop,’” according to motion materials made public Wednesday.

Bryan Badali, lawyer for Forcillo, also asked the coroner to allow him to introduce evidence from Yatim’s text and Blackberry messages — to get a glimpse of Yatim’s state of mind — and be able to question experts on the phenomenon of suicide by cop.

Without evidence of Yatim’s mindset, Badali said, the inquest jury tasked with determining the manner of Yatim’s death — namely, whether it was a homicide or a suicide — won’t get the full picture and that “would artificially tip the scales in favor of a homicide finding.”

“There is clear evidence that Mr. Yatim taunted Mr. Forcillo and other officers, and repeatedly and knowingly disobeyed clear commands, even in the face of a warning that he would be shot if he did not comply,” Badali wrote in the motion.

Forcillo was convicted of attempted murder after firing nine times at Yatim inside a Toronto streetcar on July 27, 2013. Video showing Forcillo repeatedly shooting at Yatim, including as he lay prone on the Dundas West Streetcar, prompted widespread outrage.

Despite killing Yatim, Forcillo was acquitted of second-degree murder — an outcome made possible by Crown prosecutors’ decision to split the nine shots into two distinct volleys and separate criminal charges.

In fiery arguments made in a special hearing Wednesday, lawyers for Yatim’s family blasted the former officer’s last-minute move, which came at 1:31 pm on the Sunday before the inquest was set to be heard the following day.

Jonah Waxman, the lawyer representing Yatim’s father and sister, called it victim-blaming that has revictimized a family. It “casts a pall on the entire investigation,” he said.

“The very act of bringing this motion was distasteful. It has further delayed the inquest and caused unnecessary suffering to the entire family,” Waxman said.

In a statement, Bill Yatim, Sammy’s father, called the move by Forcillo an “effort to disgrace Sammy’s memory (that) only worsens my pain.”

“With this motion, Mr. Forcillo is pointing his finger at Sammy, when he already used the same finger on the trigger of his Glock, nine times,” Bill Yatim said.

The criminal trial into Yatim’s shooting death has already made it “pretty clear” that Yatim’s manner of death was a homicide,” said Asha James, the lawyer representing Yatim’s mother Sahar Bahadi.

“With respect, this is not a case where there’s a potential of more than one manner of death … It’s pretty clear on the evidence,” James told the virtual hearing, Bahadi sitting next to her busily scribbling notes.

Police were initially called to the scene after Yatim pulled out a knife on the crowded streetcar and exposed himself. By the time Forcillo fired his weapon, Yatim was alone on the streetcar.

The coroner’s inquest is not a criminal trial, but a hearing held to determine the details of someone’s death and produce recommendations aimed at preventing further fatalities. A coroner’s inquest is mandatory in Ontario under certain circumstances, including when someone dies in police custody.

A jury of five citizens hears all the evidence brought forward in the case and crafts the recommendations. Their task also includes making basic determinations about a death, including the manner — whether it was a suicide, homicide, natural or accidental death, or is undetermined.

Inquests also have “scopes” set by the coroner, who oversees the hearing like a de facto judge. Scopes determine the focus of the inquest and dictate which evidence can and cannot be heard by the jury.

For the Yatim inquest, Cameron said that since there has been a lengthy trial and a number of reports on policing that stemmed from the death, he’d determined the most useful focus of the inquest was on “police officer decision making.”

In his opening remarks Wednesday, Cameron said after a “collaborative approach” taken to prepare for the inquest “I’m a bit disappointed by being sidetracked by this motion.”

“I’m hoping that all the parties can show me that we can run this inquest with its true purpose in mind, being an effective public safety tool for Ontarians.”

Arguments continue Wednesday afternoon.

Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing for the Star. Reach her by email at wgillis@thestar.ca or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis

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