A Toronto police officer has been found guilty of assault in the beating of a young Black man more than three years ago, while his brother has been acquitted of all charges.
Michael Theriault has been convicted of assault, but found not guilty of aggravated assault and obstruction of justice, in relation to the Dec. 28, 2016 incident involving Dafonte Miller that left the young Black man blinded in one eye.
While a decision like this would usually come in court, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic led to the hearing being broadcast live on YouTube, with thousands of people tuning in.
Di Luca began reading his judgment at 9:30 a.m. ET. He said he expected it would take several hours to read through the entire document before he got to the verdict.
Di Luca said the case, and others like it, “raise significant issues involving race and policing that should be further examined.”
But he said his task was not to conduct a public inquiry on race and policing, or to deliver the verdict sought by the public — it is to determine the case based on the evidence.
Michael Theriault is currently suspended with pay, Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray said in an email before the verdict was handed down.
“The internal disciplinary process is held until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings,” she wrote.
Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders is expected to speak about the verdict Friday afternoon.
Family, friends outside courthouse
Speaking on Thursday, Sharon Fletcher said she planned to pull on her “Here for Dafonte” T-shirt Friday and head to the Oshawa, Ont., courthouse for the verdict, in a case that has made headlines in the Toronto area and across the country.
Even though the courthouse is empty due to the novel coronavirus, she planned to stand with others outside to show her support for Miller.
Fletcher, a Black woman with adult children, said she couldn’t imagine the possibility of the brothers being found not guilty.
Michael Theriault, a Toronto police officer who was off duty that night in 2016, and his younger brother, Christian, both face charges of aggravated assault and obstruction of justice. The brothers had pleaded not guilty, telling the court Miller attacked them that night and they were defending themselves.
The evidence in the trial was heard months before people took to the streets in the United States, Canada and around the world to protest the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other similar cases. But Miller’s case has also drawn attention to the same issues: anti-Black racism and police brutality.
2 vastly different versions of events presented in court
The defence had argued it’s not a case of race but of self-defence. The Crown contended there was no justification for the beating Miller suffered that night.
Miller, who was 19 at the time of the incident, said he was walking down a residential street in the early morning hours in Whitby, Ont. — more than 50 kilometres east of Toronto — with two friends. He testified that the brothers, who were at their father’s house, came outside and questioned them. He told the court he ran and the Theriaults chased him, catching up to him between two houses.
He said they beat him — punching, kicking and hitting him with an object. He made his way to the front of a home and banged on the door for help, but the beating continued.
Homeowner James Silverthorn, a district chief with Toronto Fire Services, was a Crown witness. He said he woke up even before the banging on the door to the sounds of screaming.
He looked through his side window and saw two men beating another man.
“It was continuous. It was very hard,” he told the court.
He said later, when the men had moved to the front of his house, he saw one man holding an object, stabbing down with it, to keep the man on the ground from getting up.
A long metal pole with blood on it was found at the scene.
The Theriault brothers told the court they caught Miller and one of his friends breaking into their parents’ vehicle and that they were trying to apprehend him.
They testified that once they caught up to him, Miller was the one with a pipe and that he was hitting them.
Michael Theriault admitted in court that he punched Miller repeatedly, as hard as he could, trying to disarm him. He said he and his brother feared for their lives.
‘This case is not about race,’ defence argued
In written closing submissions, the defence wrote: “This case is not about race.”
The narratives put forward by Miller and his lawyer “bear no resemblance to what actually happened,” their submission reads.
The defence lawyers also argued Miller lied in court when he denied breaking into cars that night.
Prosecutors said even if Miller was breaking into cars, the severe beating that caused him to lose his left eye was not justified.
Lawyer Omar Ha-Redeye, executive director of the Durham Community Legal Clinic, said that whatever the judge rules, he wouldn’t be surprised if he mentions the current climate and the increased focus on anti-Black racism.
“Although judges are essentially making a decision about the specific case that is before them, what they’re also doing is speaking to why the law is what it is,” he said.
“And so justice is not just done, but it must be seen to be done.”
Ha-Redeye said one positive thing about having the decision streamed online due to the COVID-19 pandemic is that more people will be able to watch the court process.
Miller’s online supporters said the case is gathering attention around the world, so many who will be watching the decision may be doing so from outside Canada.