Peter Khill not guilty in fatal shooting of unarmed First Nations man Jon Styres
Jury accepts argument of self defence; Indigenous leader shocked at verdict
A Hamilton jury has found Peter Khill not guilty of murdering Jon Styres, a First Nations man from Ohsweken, Ont., who was trying to steal his truck.
A 12-person jury reached its verdict Wednesday morning after deliberations started Tuesday afternoon. There were gasps from supporters on both sides of the trial, then tears, as the verdict was read.
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The 28-year-old man previously admitted he fired the two, close-range shotgun blasts that killed 29-year-old Styres in Khill's suburban Hamilton driveway on the night of Feb. 4, 2016.
Khill pleaded not guilty to a charge of second-degree murder, based on self-defence, with his lawyer arguing the shooting was "justified" because he believed Styres had a gun and he feared for his life.
Is a truck worth more than a young man's life? Obviously it is- Ava Hill, chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River
The Superior Court of Ontario heard Styres did not have a gun that night. He was carrying a knife, but it was closed and in his pocket.
The case was being watched by Indigenous community leaders, because it raises similar legal issues to the controversial case in Saskatchewan involving the death of Colten Boushie, an Indigenous man.
In that case, an apparently all-white jury acquitted Gerald Stanley of second-degree murder in Boushie's death.
Ava Hill, chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River, said she and her entire community were shocked and left in disbelief by Wednesday's verdict, which she sees as another example of Canadian courts failing Indigenous people.
"This young man that was killed did not have to die. We could have helped him, been there for him, instead he leaves behind two young girls." Chief Ava Hill speaks on the injustice done in the acquittal of Jon Styres' killer. <a href="https://twitter.com/ChiefsofOntario?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ChiefsofOntario</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/NANComms?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@NANComms</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/injustice?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#injustice</a> <a href="https://t.co/7VgssJTWcX">pic.twitter.com/7VgssJTWcX</a>—@AIAI_Comms
She said it left Styres' entire family, especially the mother of his children, Lindsay Hill, a wreck.
"They're all in shock, they can't believe it. I can't believe it either. Is a truck worth more than a young man's life? Obviously it is."
Screened for bias
Prospective jurors were screened for possible racial bias and the jury included at least one non-white person.
Race was never raised in evidence during the trial. In his closing arguments, defence lawyer Jeffrey Manishen did touch on the race of the two men. In the pre-dawn pitch-dark there was no way Khill could have known Styres was First Nations, said the lawyer — Khill didn't see skin colour, he only saw a threat.
"Race cannot, it does not, play a role in the case," said Manishen.
But Hill did not agree, describing the verdict as "racism rearing its ugly head" again.
"The whole justice system needs to be redone. Look at the number of people we have in jails. It's not a hidden fact," she said. "We've been talking about the justice system and how people are getting trapped in there for years."
Tears and shock
The verdict was met with sighs of relief and hugs among Khill's supporters in court, including his wife, Melinda Benko, who was with him on the night of the shooting and dissolved into tears, crying into the shoulder of a woman sitting next to her.
There were tears among Styres' supporters too. Hill began sobbing as the verdict was read and had to be held up by two women wearing T-shirts with the words #JusticeForJon printed on the front as she was walked out of the room.
Another man stormed out, angrily saying "This is f--king bullshit."
The emotional responses the gallery contrasted with Khill's, who remained largely expressionless as he learned of his acquittal.
"Mr. Khill, you're free to go," said Superior Court Justice Stephen Glithero.
"Thank you, your honour," he replied.
Two court officers stood between Khill and everyone else in the courtroom until it cleared.
Training kicked in
The jury reached its verdict after a trial that ran for just over two weeks. During that time the jury heard from Khill, a former reservist, that he and his girlfriend were woken up by two loud, banging noises and when they looked outside, realized the lights were on in his 15-year-old GMC pickup truck.
Prosecutors did not deny that Styres was trying to steal Khill's truck on the night of the shooting.
Khill told court that at the sight of those lights his military background kicked in and he grabbed a 12 gauge shotgun from his bedroom closet, loaded it with two shells and headed outside to "confront and detain" whoever was out there.
He ran through a breezeway between his house and garage, opened the door and came up behind Styres, who he testified was leaning over the passenger-side seat.
"Hey, hands up!" he shouted at Styres. Khill told a 911 operator that night that Styres had turned toward him with his hands sweeping up to "gun-height."
But experts during the two-week trial testified that the angle of the shots showed it was their opinion Styres was facing into the truck when he was hit in the chest and shoulder.
Call for appeal
The Crown's position was that Khill was not acting in self-defence and that instead of calling the police and staying safe in his home when he realized his truck was being broken into, he "took the law into his own hands."
Assistant Crown attorney Steve O'Brien cited testimony from Khill's superior officer with the reserves who said military training also includes gathering information and never "charging blindly" alone into danger.
"It is inexcusable that he did not call 911," said the Crown, in its closing statement, suggesting also it was Khill's shouted instructions that caused Styres to jump in surprise, which was enough motion for the man with the gun to feel frightened and open fire.
The Six Nations council issued a press release Wednesday calling on the Ministry of the Attorney General to appeal the verdict, citing "questionable moments" from the trial including the judge's decision to exclude video of a police interview with Khill in which he described shooting Styres, and "non-expert" evidence about the effect of Khill's military training.
When contacted by CBC News, the ministry declined to comment on the outcome of the trial and the possibility of an appeal.
After the verdict, Khill was led out the back of the courthouse.
Manishen said his client wanted to thank the jury for their verdict and his family and friends for their support.