Lack of coroner's inquest in death of inmate Cornell Henry 'beyond maddening,' lawyer says

Don Worme says the Henry family's "access to justice" issues highlight why an inquest is needed. 

Don Worme says inquests play critical role in helping prevent future deaths

Cornell Henry died 10 days after two inmates beat him in his cell at Saskatoon Correctional Centre. The assault happened soon after a guard lost track of Henry's file and it would up in the hands of other prisoners. (Wayne Anderson)

A prominent Cree lawyer says an opportunity to prevent future deaths has been missed as a result of the decision to forgo a coroner's inquest into the October 2017 death of Indigenous inmate Cornell Henry.

According to a recently released investigation report, two inmates fatally beat Henry in his Saskatoon jail cell shortly after a guard mishandled Henry's private file. The file contained portions of Henry's criminal record and wound up in the hands of other prisoners. Henry died from his injuries 10 days later.

"Something in the file caused them to assault that inmate," provincial privacy commissioner Ronald Kruzeniski wrote in a report sent earlier this month to the Ministry of Corrections. 

Kruzeniski added that the guard's failure to contain the privacy breach was "negligence" and that had the guard taken early actions, Henry's death might have been prevented. 

After Kruzeniski's report was made public, a spokesperson confirmed the Saskatchewan Coroners Service has decided not to hold an inquest into Henry's death, citing the guilty pleas of the two men charged in Henry's death.  

"In light of the public account of the circumstances given during the criminal proceedings related to this death, it was not necessary to conduct a coroner's inquest in this case, as all the objectives of a coroner's inquest had already been fulfilled by the criminal proceedings," the spokesperson said.

Don Worme represented the mother of Neil Stonechild during the 2004 Stonechild public inquiry. He has also criticized the coroners service in the past for decisions to not hold inquests for people who died in jail.

Worme said the difference between criminal proceedings and an inquest is critical.

"In the criminal investigation, you want to hold somebody accountable. You are looking for what happened and who did it," Worme said.

"In an inquest, there is a larger, more societal educational value that's attached to that. It's meant to inform people generally about what happened and how to prevent it in the future."

In the case of Henry's death, "there is absolutely none of that," Worme said. "There is no educational aspect to the investigation."

Recommendations already made to ministry

Kruzeniski's report to the ministry did make a number of recommendations, none of which are legally binding — but neither are the recommendations of a coroner's inquest jury.

Kruzeniski called on corrections staff to receive annual privacy training. He also recommended tighter handling of inmate files.

While online privacy training was already launched in 2018, the ministry said it would respond to Kruzeniski's report "once we have carefully reviewed the recommendations."

The ministry was also asked to provide a copy of Kruzeniski's report to Henry's family.

Wayne Anderson, Henry's father, said that hasn't happened.

"We never received nothing," Anderson said. 

Lingering questions

Lisa Watson, the co-president of the Saskatoon Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, said an inquest may not strictly be necessary to accomplish the fact-finding and recommendation missions of an inquest, given that Kruzeniski's report is posted online

"In some respects the criminal proceedings may have canvassed the same information that would be included in a coroner's inquest," Watson said.

"However, it is noteworthy that both accuseds in Mr. Henry's case entered guilty pleas, and therefore a formal trial with witnesses testifying and being subject to cross-examination did not occur."  

Families have the option of retaining lawyers to cross-examine witnesses during inquests. 

Henry's father Wayne Anderson says he still has a lot of questions about his son's death. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Michael Nolin, the lawyer who defended one of Henry's killers, said the cause of Henry's death — another key focus at inquests — is already known.

"He succumbed to the injuries he sustained in a senseless and preventable beating in jail," Nolin said. "The beating was provoked by the unacceptable negligence of the [corrections officer] who lost control of Mr. Henry's file."

But Nolin said he still has questions that have not been answered to his satisfaction. 

"In no particular order of importance they are: Why didn't someone immediately check Mr. Henry's file for completeness when the [corrections officers] recovered it? And why didn't someone immediately conduct a welfare check on Mr. Henry? 

"It took hours to discover Mr. Henry was injured."

Family can't afford a lawsuit

Anderson said the family still has a number of questions too. He said he wants to know why a guard would handle an inmate file in the first place. He too wonders why it took guards more than two hours to discover Henry bloody and beaten in his bed. 

"Me and my wife are very, very disturbed," Anderson said. 

He said the family has consulted lawyers but that the quoted cost of launching a civil suit against the province is "way above our reach of money." He said he's hopeful he can find a lawyer who can be paid out of a settlement. 

Lawyer Don Worme says the province should hold an inquest into Henry's death. (Ken Gigliotti//Winnipeg Free Press/The Canadian Press)

Worme said the family's "access to justice" issues highlight why an inquest is needed. 

"I don't understand it. You know, is it up to to Mr. Henry now to discharge the burden of the province to provide justice? It's beyond maddening," Worme said. 

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Journalist at CBC Saskatoon

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