London

Officer who didn't help First Nations woman he arrested deserves jail time, Crown says

Const. Nicholas Doering is expected to be sentenced in March after he was found guilty of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life in the death of a First Nations woman who died shortly after being arrested in 2016.

Const. Nicholas Doering was found guilty in the case of Debra Chrisjohn, who died in 2016

Debra Chrisjohn died on Sept. 7, 2016, shortly after being arrested. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

She was a mother, a sister, friend, and by all accounts a woman who was loving and had a ready sense of humour. 

"The cruelty of her death overwhelms the gentleness in her life," said Cindy Chrisjohn, one of her sisters, in court this morning. 

She was among a number of family and friends of Debra Lee Chrisjohn gathered in court this morning to deliver victim impact statements, the first part of the sentencing of Const. Nicholas Doering, who was found guilty of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life. 

Debra Chrisjohn was a drug user who died on Sept. 7, 2016 after being arrested by London police. 

During the police officer's trial, the court heard that when Doering was called to deal with Chrisjohn, he was told by dispatchers that officers had dealt with her the day before and had concluded she was high on methamphetamine.

But when a paramedic came to the scene, Doering didn't ask for a medical assessment. Instead, he drove to a rural intersection outside London to meet OPP officers to transfer her to their custody. 

Police officers must be aware of their duty to protect people who are using substances and the public must be confident that they will do that."- Assistant Crown Jason Nicol

Chrisjohn's condition had deteriorated upon arrival and she was slumped in the backseat unable to talk. Doering told OPP officers that she had been medically cleared by paramedics. 

Chrisjohn's condition further deteriorated in OPP custody. They called paramedics and she was taken to hospital, where she died.  

Lengthy sentence

The Crown is seeking a lengthy jail sentence, anywhere from 20 to 30 month, while the defence is asking for a suspended sentence, with three years probation. 

"We are very far apart on this," said Lucas O'Hara, Doering's lawyer. 

He said with a probation term, Doering can repair his reputation in the community and possibly continue to be a police officer. If he serves even one day in jail, he will not be able to continue as a police officer. 

But Assistant Crown Attorney Jason Nicol said it would be "extraordinary" not to give Doering a sentence that would involve jail, even though as a police officer he would require extra security. 

"It was his legal duty to care for Ms Chrisjohn while she was in his custody," said Nicol.

"Dealing with Ms. Chrisjohn was not a unique situation. Police officers in London deal with people who are using drugs every day. This sentence must serve as a general deterrence. Police officers must be aware of their duty to protect people who are using substances and the public must be confident that they will do that." 

'A death without dignity'

"I think about my sister every day," said Cindy Chrisjohn. 

"Instead of dying in a hospital bed where I could have held her hand and told her to figure because she had so much to live for, she was alone in a jail cell. She didn't have us to comfort her and we didn't have a chance to say goodbye. 

"This kind of death is a death without divinity or grace." 

Cindy Chrisjohn speaks about her sister, Debra Lee Chrisjohn, outside of London court. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Another sister called Debra her sidekick and best friend, someone who didn't have a lot to give but gave what she did have. 

One of Debra's children said she often ran away from foster care and group homes to be with her mom, and looked forward to turning 18, so she could be free to move out and live with her mom. 

"I was waiting for 18 to come so I could come to her. I had plans to be with her, to help her get better, to have her watch me grow up and succeed," the daughter said. 

Justice Renee Pomerance is expected to deliver her sentence on March 16.  

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