Reporter's notebook: Covering misconduct from an ex-RCMP officer in the Surrey Six case
CBC reporter Rhianna Schmunk takes us into the courtroom at hearing for former officer
It was something you still don't see often.
An experienced murder investigator, once a rising star with the RCMP, was doubled over in his seat, elbows on his knees and face in his hands, sobbing so hard his shoulders shook.
Derek Brassington, a former sergeant with the force, was sitting in the prisoner's box at his sentencing hearing in B.C. Supreme Court. He was about to be sentenced for having an affair with a potential key witness during the investigation into the 2007 Surrey Six murders — the deadliest gang-related shooting in B.C.'s history.
At the Jan. 18 hearing, prosecutors read out loud an agreed statement of facts, outlining details of the entire forbidden relationship that led to two criminal charges: breach of trust and obstruction of justice.
The details were more sordid and intimate than many reporters expected to hear, but Brassington, for the better part of 45 minutes, barely seemed to react.
He only broke down when his defence lawyer, Ian Donaldson, recited a list of everything his client lost in the aftermath of the affair: his policing career; his reputation and other personal relationships.
Brassington could barely speak when he addressed the judge to make his apology. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, the tall ex-Mountie stood at the podium and took deep breaths. When he spoke his voice shook through the sobs. Justice Arne Silverman gently told him to take his time.
I didn't know what to write in my notebook. Crying? Sobbing? Inconsolable?
How do you convey this kind of reaction and what it means, coming from this person nearly a decade after the crime?
It had become clear that the story wasn't just about an officer sleeping with a witness when he was supposed to be helping to solve a high-stakes murder case. It's also a reminder of the crippling stress officers face, how they can be corrupted by temptation over time and how quickly lives can fall apart.
Reporters gathered together in the hall after the hearing and talked about what we could report. An extensive publication ban covered the majority of what we'd heard that day. We were limited to reporting only the fact of the guilty plea, the code definition of the charges he pleaded guilty to and the specifics of his sentence — two years less a day house arrest under conditions.
Publication bans are court orders put in place to stop the public and the media from reporting certain details of an otherwise public court proceeding, often to protect identities or preserve the fairness of another upcoming trial.
I phoned my executive producer back in the newsroom and updated him on what had happened. A decision was made to challenge parts of the publication ban.
We believed there was significant public interest in reporting the story, based on the statement of facts and Brassington's apology. A public servant had pleaded guilty and been sentenced for egregiously committing two crimes during a significant murder investigation, but we couldn't tell the public why.
I drafted a story about Brassington while we waited for our application to be heard in court. Ten days later, on Jan. 28, we found out two of Brassington's co-accused were going to plead guilty and be sentenced for charges against them, too. All three had been charged in 2011.
It was the same story with their hearings: we could only report the charge, plea and sentence. We added their cases to our application to have parts of the ban lifted.
A B.C. Supreme Court justice heard our application on Jan. 30. Justice Heather Holmes rescinded parts of the ban and gave reporters redacted versions of what had been submitted in court in all three hearings.
I went back to the newsroom and wrote. The story went through two editors, an executive producer and a lawyer before we published.
I wanted to include revelations from Brassington that the public had never heard before because it shed a light on his state of mind leading up to and during the affair.
For example, we learned that although he had 13 years experience as an investigator, Brassington had little experience managing witnesses. On top of that, he said he was already acting as a leader in the difficult Robert Dziekanski case when he was also assigned the Surrey Six case in the fall of 2007.
Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant to Canada, died after he was Tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 14, 2007 — five days before six people were killed in the Surrey murders. A video of the airport incident showing Dziekanski being subdued by four officers made headlines around the world and brought enormous scrutiny on the force.
Brassington told the court he would cry in anguish when he listened to radio coverage hammering the force over Dziekanski's death and his investigation as he drove home after work. He said he saw the Surrey Six investigation case as a chance at redemption for the force.
Instead, he snapped under the stress of both investigations.
"I sold my soul for this," he told the court at the end of his hearing. "Instead of restoring public trust and faith in the RCMP, I killed it."
He continued: "I am sorry to everybody in this country that looks to the police to do what's right."