Did Steve Mesic commit suicide or was he a victim of homicide?

In the end, an inquest jury couldn’t definitively say. The Hamilton man’s death was ruled “undetermined” as the two-week inquest into his shooting drew to a close Monday.

“One of the greatest mysteries that I would submit that will remain unresolved in this matter is what was going on in Mr. Mesic’s mind – what personal turmoil he was in,” counsel to the coroner Graeme Leach told the jury Monday. “By all accounts he appeared stable, safe and wanted to get better.”

“But it seems he had committed to a plan of self harm and self destruction.”

Mesic, a former steelworker, was shot and killed on June 7, 2013, in a field just steps away from his home near Lincoln Alexander Parkway and Upper Wentworth during an encounter with two police officers. The officers did not know the location was beside Mesic's home.

'I got a sense that they were wrestling with that question.'- Mesic family lawyer Carr Hatch

The incident took place shorty after Mesic checked himself out of a voluntary mental health program at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton. The SIU cleared the officers involved in the shooting of any wrongdoing.

In the end, the jury adopted ten recommendations for the various agencies involved in the inquest. Those recommendations aren’t legally binding – but they are made in efforts to change procedures curb similar shootings.

Among them were changes to Ontario Police College and Hamilton police training, mandatory “re-certification” in use of force training for officers involved in a shooting, and that St Joe’s should review its policies for clients in the mental health ward.

The jury also wants to see police across the province get more training around dealing with mentally disturbed persons- and that some of that training comes from people who have experienced mental illness.

The jury also recommended that Hamilton police study the results of a lapel camera project that’s being piloted by Toronto police, and implement a similar program if the results there are favourable.

Lapel cameras review

Mesic’s family has been campaigning for lapel cameras for months, and family lawyer Carr Hatch says the move is a step in the right direction. “Lapel cameras in Canada are still a fairly new thing, and the Toronto Police Service has taken the lead with respect to that,” he said. “I think the Dorr family would be happy with that because it does show that they ought to at least consider it.”

Hatch says it isn’t terribly surprising that the jury couldn’t decide if Mesic’s death was a homicide or suicide during its over five hours of deliberations. “We thought it was a very real possibility, especially considering how long the jury took to reach a verdict.”

Police review

“I got a sense that they were wrestling with that question. They had a hard time here, because the evidence from police was very inconsistent, and I’ve been saying that since day one.”

Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire said in a statement that the service will review the recommendations that the jury made to “enhance our service to our citizens.”

“We will address the issues in a report to the Hamilton Police Services Board on this review,” De Caire said in a statement. “The loss of life is tragic at any time and the effects are significant for everyone involved. The Hamilton Police Service extends its condolences to the family of Steve Mesic for their loss.”

The inquest was almost derailed for a second time Monday afternoon when a person found the jury members during lunch and tried to “sway” them on their decisions. That person wasn’t connected to any of the parties involved in the inquest, and was asked to leave the building, presiding coroner Dr. Jack Stanborough said.

In the end, Stanborough said he hoped these proceedings would help bring some closure to the family – though that isn’t always the case.

“The inquest process is like picking the scab off a wound,” he said.

Here are the ten recommendations the inquest jury made Monday:

1. That the Ontario Police College include training by people who have used mental health services.

2. That the event’s surrounding Mesic’s death be included in scenario training at the Ontario Police College.

3. That Hamilton Police receive additional, annual “emotionally disturbed person” training by people who have used mental health services, “due to the statistics supporting the amount of police calls dealing with emotionally disturbed persons in Hamilton.”

4. That Hamilton police consider radio messages to alert officers of people displaying “self harm and harm to others.”

5. That Hamilton police monitor the Toronto police lapel camera pilot project, and implement something similar if it gets good results.

6. That all police services in Ontario have all “subject officers” investigated by the Special Investigations Unit submit to mandatory re-certification of use of force training, and mandatory consultations with psychologists before going back to work.

7. That St. Joseph’s hospital review its client observation process and monitor staff adherence to the process. The jury also recommended enhanced patient identification measures.

8. That St. Joe’s develop a specific policy for “off ward passes” in the mental health and addiction program.

9. That St. Joes standardize the transfer of primary responsibility between patients and physicians.

10. That when family involvement is accepted by a client, that St. Joes increase communication with the family for the plan of care before a form 1 or form 3 that keeps the person in hospital expires.

Lawyers' presentations

As this is a coroner’s inquest and not a criminal trial, no criminal charges would be laid because of a homicide determination. Anita Szegeti, a lawyer representing the Empowerment Council, had urged the jury to come back with a finding of homicide. The Empowerment Council is an organization that helped frame a patient bill of rights at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. 

“What happened here is a tragedy of epic proportions. Steve Mesic could have been any of us,” Szegeti told the jury. But there’s no way to say with certainty that this was a case of “suicide by cop,” she said.

“You can only guess what Mr. Mesic’s intentions were.”

But Gary Clewley, the lawyer representing Const. Kevin Farrell, says Mesic’s death was ultimately suicide. "They shot and killed him so he didn't kill them. That's a harsh truth – but no less true because it's harsh," he said.

“He was shot because that’s what Mr. Mesic wanted. And he gave the officers no choice but to do so.”