'I was terrified,' RCMP officer charged in fatal 2015 Thompson shooting testifies
Const. Abram Letkeman has pleaded not guilty in the death of Steven Campbell, 39
RCMP Const. Abram Letkeman told a Thompson, Man., court Wednesday he was terrified and believed he was going to die when he fired the shots that killed Steven Campbell in November, 2015.
The officer began to cry as he told court he fired two rounds, then more, as fast as he could, after he testified the vehicle Campbell was driving accelerated toward him following a collision on an ATV trail in the northern Manitoba city.
"No matter what I was doing, I was still going to end up getting run over and die," Letkeman said.
Letkeman, who is represented by defence attorney Joshua Weinstein, pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, among other charges, on June 17, the first day of his judge-only trial at Court of Queen's Bench.
The trial previously heard that Campbell, 39, was shot following a police chase that began when Letkeman attempted to pull him over for suspected impaired driving. Four passengers were with Campbell at the time.
Letkeman, 37, testified Wednesday he pursued Campbell's Jeep through Thompson, onto a construction site and then onto the ATV trail. He told court he hit the vehicle with his cruiser intentionally on one occasion, striking it from behind in an intersection, in the belief it would stop the Jeep and end the pursuit safely, despite having no training on such a manoeuvre.
The pursuit continued.
The officer, a father of four, testified he hit the Jeep a second time unintentionally on the ATV trail, moments before the shooting. The Jeep had stopped sideways across the trail with its nose in the snow on one side, Letkeman testified, and the officer told court his plan was to park his cruiser behind the vehicle, preventing it from driving on.
At the last moment, Letkeman testified, the Jeep pulled backward into the trail and his cruiser T-boned the vehicle. The Jeep reversed away in an arc, stopping again with its back wheels on the opposite side of the trail.
Letkeman told court that's when he crossed in front of the vehicle, in an effort to get to the driver-side door to arrest the person driving.
"I was terrified," he said.
He testified the Jeep moved toward him and he started firing and running. The Jeep drove over his right foot as he fired his gun, he said, before spinning out across the trail and stopping.
Crown attorney Christian Vanderhooft questioned Letkeman's placement while shooting. He argued the officer must have continued shooting even after the Jeep was no longer coming toward him, in order for the left front tire of the Jeep to have run over his right foot.
'I know that I didn't act perfectly'
Letkeman's defence team doesn't dispute that the officer shot and killed Campbell while on duty, Vanderhooft told Justice Chris Martin in an agreed statement of facts last week.
On Wednesday, Letkeman testified he'd seen Campbell's Jeep driving erratically, fishtailing on the road, and decided to pull him over. He testified Campbell stopped briefly in a hotel parking lot before driving on. The officer testified he decided to pursue because he believed Campbell was a danger to the public, himself and his passengers.
During cross-examination, Vanderhooft repeatedly questioned Letkeman on his radio transmissions to colleagues during the pursuit, his failure to tell his shift supervisor about the collisions and his decision to get out of his cruiser and approach the Jeep after the collision on the trail.
The Crown prosecutor suggested Letkeman intentionally left out important details of the chase because he knew his shift supervisor would order him to stop pursuing Campbell.
He argued Letkeman's decision to approach the Jeep alone, instead of waiting for backup he knew was coming, was an unsafe choice that went against his training.
"I know that I didn't act perfectly," Letkeman said. "At that time, I believed that the decision I was making was the right decision."
Use of force testimony
Court heard radio transmissions last week in which Letkeman told colleagues the Jeep was driving about 35 to 40 km/h, but Letkeman testified Wednesday it had been driving faster than that earlier in the chase.
On Tuesday, a police use of force expert told court that T-boning a vehicle full of passengers, if intentional, is considered a use of deadly force.
The expert, retired police officer Christopher Butler, testified Letkeman's decision to fire the gun was consistent with RCMP training and policy, because Letkeman's perception was that Campbell had the ability, intent and means to threaten his life.
Butler told court, however, that an officer walking in front of a suspect vehicle would be a "tactically disastrous" failure of risk assessment creating a self-imposed jeopardy.
Trial to conclude Thursday
The forensic pathologist who did the autopsy told court last week that Campbell, a father of two girls, was shot at least nine times in the arms, chest and jaw. Dr. John Younes, also Manitoba's chief medical examiner, testified he found two bullets still lodged in Campbell's body.
Letkeman was arrested on March 1, 2017. In addition to manslaughter, he is charged with criminal negligence causing death, reckless discharge of a firearm, criminal negligence causing bodily harm and dangerous driving causing bodily harm.
RCMP spokesperson Paul Manaigre told CBC that Letkeman has been suspended with pay since March 2017.
Letkeman's trial is expected to conclude Thursday.