Nova Scotia

'They ... ran into his vehicle': Shock as white man acquitted of hitting 2 black men

People in Shelburne, N.S., are reacting with shock after a white driver who struck two black men following a dispute was acquitted of all five charges he faced. Justice Pierre Muise of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court cleared Bill Williams, 51, of wrongdoing Jan. 10.

Bill Williams cleared after telling judge he was looking for the men, but hit them by accident

The case has divided the town of Shelburne. (Shutterstock/Volodymyr Baleha)

People in Shelburne, N.S., are reacting with shock after a white driver who struck two black men following a dispute was acquitted of all five charges he faced.

Justice Pierre Muise of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court cleared Bill Williams, 51, of wrongdoing Jan. 10. In his decision, Muise said Williams's testimony in his own defence raised a reasonable doubt in the judge's mind, leading to the acquittal. 

CBC News spoke to a number of people involved in the case, which began in 2014, to piece together what happened. 

A Halloween party gone wrong

On Halloween night 2014, young people gathered at a Shelburne house party. A fight broke out between Bill Williams's son and two other men, Cade Benham and Steven Davis — all in their early 20s. The son was left with a broken jaw. 

Tom Jacklyn isn't directly connected to the case, but has been involved as a member of the black community in Shelburne. Jacklyn said he heard the incident started with a racial slur at the party.

"Race did play into it right from the beginning," Jacklyn, who did not attend the party, told CBC News. 

Benham and Davis left the gathering. But Williams, who had arrived to pick up his son, went looking for Benham and Davis.

'He was looking to find the boys'

"His evidence at trial indicated that he was looking to find the boys," Williams's lawyer, Raymond Jacquard, told CBC News. 

"He knew the cops were coming and was out looking to see where they were to relay that to the RCMP."

Williams's car struck the two men on Highway 103. Jacquard said his client admits he was upset because his son had been hurt, but he was not in a "rage."

"The Crown was trying to indicate that Mr. Williams did this intentionally because he was upset because these two men had [allegedly] assaulted his son at a party earlier," Jacquard said.

'They ... ran into his vehicle'

Williams denied that charge.

"He didn't know who it was until after the accident," said Jacquard.

"Basically everything happened within a matter of a split second. They came out from the side of the highway and ran into his vehicle."

Steven Davis suffered injuries after he was hit by Bill Williams's car. (CBC)

Police arrived and found Benham and Davis injured. The two men were later charged with assault in connection with the incident at the party, though CBC News could not learn if they still face those charges.

Williams, however, was not initially charged. Police did not impound his vehicle, perform a breathalyzer on him, or interview witnesses. 

Man suffered broken nose, eye socket

Neither Benham nor Davis could be reached for comment.

However, Davis's mother told CBC at the time that her son suffered a broken nose and broken eye socket, and needed six hours of surgery. At the time, the RCMP in Shelburne told people there was not enough evidence to lay charges, which led to protests in the town along Nova Scotia's southwestern shore.

Karen Davis says her son had a broken nose, broken eye socket and underwent six hours of surgery as a result of being hit by a vehicle on Highway 103. (CBC)

Three months later, police decided there was enough evidence and charged Williams with two counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm, two counts of assault with a weapon and one count of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle. 

"Mr. Williams took the stand and gave evidence that it was an accident, that he didn't intentionally hit the two men," said Jacquard.

"There was no lighting in that section of the highway. It was very dark that night, it was foggy and misty and started to rain shortly after the accident."

Judge believed driver's testimony

The judge believed Williams's testimony, which led to the acquittal on the two assault with a weapon charges. The criminal negligence charge claimed that his driving that night took a marked departure from what a reasonable person would do. The court agreed with Williams that his driving was fine.  

"The court accepted a lot of Mr. Williams's evidence because at the end of the day, it made the most sense," Jacquard said.

"The two men who were hit, their version of how the accident happened, it could not have happened that way because of where the damage was on the vehicle."

He said his client was relieved to be cleared. Jacquard, who is white, didn't think race was a factor in the case.

"My client never indicated to me, nor did I ever believe, that race was a factor."

'It stinks'

Jacklyn disagrees with the verdict and the idea that race played no role.

"The whole community here thought it was an open-and-shut case. This man ran the two boys over," he said. "When he was found not guilty of all charges, everybody was angry. I couldn't believe it. I was shocked."

Police answered questions at a public meeting in 2014. (CBC)

He said the men were compared to deer running on the highway in court, but he finds it implausible that they ran in front of Williams's car, causing the accident and visible damage to the car.

"He hit them with a car. It's too much of a coincidence that all this would happen," Jacklyn said.

"If anybody with any common sense listens to this story, it stinks."

RCMP's actions questioned

He questions why the RCMP did not interview witnesses or use a breathalyzer that night.

"The police didn't do their job. The police knew who [Davis and Benham] were because of their race and their last names — their last name being tied to race," he said.

"It's always been this way down here. If these two young men would have had the right colour skin and the right last name, charges would have been laid. It would have been handled a lot more quickly. That's all that it has to do with — the colour of their skin and who they are."

He said the black community in Shelburne will meet in the coming weeks to figure out what to do next.

We can't turn to the police. Where do you go?- Tom Jacklyn

"We have no idea where to go from here. It's such a surprise," said Jacklyn.

"We'll sit down and talk to Steven and Cade and see what they want to get out of this. But it's bigger than those two now, because the whole community is upset and we don't know where to turn.

"We can't turn to the police. Where do you go?"

Crown won't appeal

Crown prosecutor Josie McKinney said the Crown won't appeal the decision of the judge, who was described as Acadian and Métis when appointed to the provincial bench.

"The Crown is aware of the community's concerns regarding the role of race in this case. Whenever racism is raised in any case, it is important that those concerns be given careful consideration, just as we would with any other legal issue," she said in a written statement to CBC.

"As Mi'kmaq and Maliseet Crown attorney, I have a strong understanding of those issues. Ultimately, there were frailties with the testimony of several Crown witnesses at trial, which Justice Muise highlighted, and this was the basis for the verdict. However, this does not detract from the importance of having ongoing discussions about racism and discrimination."