Police chief said Winnipeg police did their best to investigate killing of Tina Fontaine

Police Chief Danny Smyth says Winnipeg investigators did the best they could in an effort to investigate the 2014 death of Tina Fontaine.

'Our investigators expected a different outcome' Danny Smyth says after not-guilty verdict for Raymond Cormier

In his first comments about the case since last month's verdict, Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth said Friday that Winnipeg's homicide unit worked very hard on the case but ultimately could not convince the jury. 2:14

Police Chief Danny Smyth says Winnipeg's police service did the best it could in an effort to investigate the 2014 death of Tina Fontaine. 

In his first comments since a jury declared Raymond Cormier not guilty of killing Fontaine, Chief Smyth said Friday that Winnipeg's homicide investigators worked very hard on the case and felt good about it going to trial.

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth, at the Winnipeg Police Board's March 2 meeting. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

"Frankly, we did our best on this one," Smyth told the Winnipeg Police Board on Friday, eight days after a Winnipeg jury found Cormier, 56, not guilty in Fontaine's 2014 death.

The 15-year-old girl from Sagkeeng First Nation was reported missing before her body was found in the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014, wrapped in a duvet cover and weighed down with rocks.​​​

Smyth said he was aware the case against Cormier was circumstantial, but remained disappointed with the verdict.

"It's heartbreaking for the family. I think they expected a different outcome. I'm sure our investigators expected a different outcome. The evidence is what it is," Smyth told reporters following the police board meeting.

"We brought forward the evidence where the Crown was confident and comfortable with laying a charge of murder. But it's a different standard for the jury," he said.

"Conviction brings a standard of 'beyond reasonable doubt.' Clearly they didn't see that."

Tina Fontaine's body was found in Winnipeg's Red River, wrapped in a duvet cover and weighted down with rocks, on Aug. 17, 2014. She was 15. (Winnipeg Police Service)

Smyth said he doesn't know if the jury would have made a different decision if the Crown raised more details about the "Mr. Big" sting conducted by police.

The chief noted none of the "Mr. Big" evidence was struck from the court proceedings.

'What we did was the right thing'

Smyth also said the trial allowed the public to see the evidence police had gathered and denied there was pressure to make an arrest in the high-profile case.

"I didn't feel political pressure at all. I think what we did was the right thing to do for a victim in our community," Smyth said.

"This was a child that was murdered and certainly a child that really wasn't even from here. She was from Sagkeeng First Nation, so we all felt an obligation to properly investigate this."

In his first comments since a jury declared Raymond Cormier not guilty of killing Fontaine, Chief Danny Smyth said Friday that Winnipeg's homicide investigators worked very hard on the case and felt good about it going to trial. 2:02

In the days before her death, Fontaine was in contact with members of the Winnipeg Police Service, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and provincial Child and Family Services employees.

Her death drew attention across Canada and inspired more calls for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Smyth said Fontaine's death has already resulted in some change, citing the provincial decision to stop using hotels to house children who are in CFS care.

"When Tina went missing, it wasn't unusual for kids to be housed in hotels. That doesn't happen anymore," he said.

Limited grounds for appeal: former prosecutor

Nonetheless, there remains a strong sentiment within Winnipeg's Indigenous community that the Fontaine's killing was not investigated or prosecuted as vigorously as possible. 

"I think there's a lot of questions as to how the investigation was done, whether it was done thoroughly, and how the justice system ultimately failed Tina and her family as well," said Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, a spokesperson for a coalition of families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Manitoba.

"So I know there's a lot of disappointment in the community with respect to the investigation and the justice system."

The Crown has 30 days to appeal the verdict. That deadline is March 22. 

Brian Bell, who worked as a Manitoba Crown prosecutor for 27 years before his retirement in 2016, said because jury deliberations are secret, the only grounds for appeal would involve an error in fact or law in the judge's charge to the jury.

"The only … things a Crown can realistically look at are whether or not there were any evidentiary rules made by the judge during the course of the trial that the Crown believes were made in error. For instance, if the judge decided that the jury wouldn't hear an accused's confession on the matter, or the judge prevented the Crown from calling certain evidence," Bell said.

A sketch from Raymond Cormier's homicide trial shows the suspect watching a witness in Court of Queen's bench. A jury found Cormier not guilty. (Tom Andrich)

The bar is set high to prevent wrongful convictions, Bell said.

"Public interest isn't a ground of appeal, and the Crown would be foolish if they launched an appeal if there were no grounds for it to succeed."

Bell said if a jury — or even a judge — acquits somebody, it doesn't necessarily mean that person is innocent.

"It may be a situation where either the jury or a judge sitting alone was not satisfied that the evidence proved the offence against the accused beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.

"And what reasonable doubt means in sort of common parlance is that a jury or judge has to be sure that an accused committed the offence."

The Winnipeg Police Service will review the case, but has nothing new to investigate right now, Smyth said.

"Looking to the future, if there was some credible information that came forward that required additional investigation, we would look there," he said.

"I think the evidence we gathered was reasonable to charge Raymond Cormier. It just didn't reach the standard for conviction."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said that Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said he did not sleep for a week following the verdict in Raymond Cormier's trial. In fact, Smyth said he did not speak (about the verdict) for a week following the trial.
    Mar 02, 2018 2:47 PM CT

With files from Brett Purdy