Racism investigation urged for Alberta judge who ruled parents not guilty in son's death
Justice Terry Clackson ruled last week in case of David, Collet Stephan
An Alberta judge has been accused of discrimination and "harshly" mocking an African-born doctor's accent in a decision released last week, and now dozens of legal and medical professionals have filed a formal complaint with the Canadian Judicial Council, asking for an investigation.
Over the summer, David and Collet Stephan underwent a second trial in Lethbridge on charges connected with the 2012 death of their 19-month-old son, Ezekiel. The couple had treated their child's illness with natural remedies for days rather than take him to a doctor.
Justice Terry Clackson released his decision acquitting the couple last week, siding with the defence's medical expert over Dr. Bamidele Adeagbo, a forensic pathologist who speaks with a thick Nigerian accent.
'Some may perceive racism'
Adeagbo said his autopsy on March 19 of that year concluded the boy died of bacterial meningitis and a lung infection.
However, the judge ultimately sided with the defence's medical expert, former chief medical officer, Dr. Anny Sauvageau in finding the boy had viral not bacterial meningitis and ultimately died of a lack of oxygen.
The complaint to the CJC filed Thursday afternoon and signed by 42 doctors, lawyers and professors said the judge made several comments about Dr. Adeagbo's accent, and "inappropriately implicated his national or ethnic origin as a person of African roots."
"We are of the view that Justice Clackson acted discriminatorily," reads the complaint. "Some may perceive racism."
Juliet Guichon, the University of Calgary medical ethicist who signed the complaint, said the judge's comments on Adeagbo's accent were "unnecessary.
"The judge disregarded the medical evidence and it appears he disregarded it because he favoured the opinion of a Canadian-born forensic pathologist over the opinion of the medical examiner who happened to have been born in Nigeria but who actually did the autopsy," said Guichon.
Judge 'harshly mocked' accent
The complaint reads, "We believe that Justice Clackson's choice of words is inappropriate, shocks the conscience, and speaking for ourselves, undermines our confidence in the administration of justice."
Clackson "harshly mocked" Adeagbo's manner of speech and accented English, the complaint reads.
Here is a passage from Clackson's decision:
"His ability to articulate his thoughts in an understandable fashion was severely compromised by: his garbled enunciation; his failure to use appropriate endings for plurals and past tenses; his failure to use the appropriate definite and indefinite articles; his repeated emphasis of the wrong syllables; dropping his Hs; mispronouncing his vowels; and the speed of his responses."
Although Clackson wrote that Adeagbo's accent "does not form a basis for a realistic concern that he was biased or partial," the complainants say the judge gave the doctor's evidence less weight because of the perceived speech problems.
Appeal not ruled out
This was the second trial for the Stephans, who were found guilty by a Lethbridge jury in 2016. While the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the original trial judge erred in his instructions to the jury.
The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service has not said whether it plans to appeal Clackson's decision.
The complaints also notes that Clackson made no reference to Sauvageau's French-Canadian accent.
"It is striking that Justice Clackson did not levy similar critiques against the opposing medical expert in the case, Dr. Anny Sauvageau, who is Québécoise and who in public addresses speaks with a French-Canadian accent."
The judge has been the subject of media attention and criticism in the past — last year, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial after finding Clackson had relied on rape myths and stereotypes in acquitting a stepfather of sexual assault.
A spokesperson for Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench says the court is aware of the complaint.
"Because this matter is the subject of a complaint before the CJC, and because it may be subject to appeal to the Alberta Court of Appeal, it would be inappropriate for the court to comment on this matter," reads a written statement.