The Andrew Loku case: what's the impact of a coroner's inquest?

What is a coroner's inquest? What impact will it have? And why was one called in the shooting death of Andrew Loku?

There are many things an inquest won't do, but here's why Black Lives Matter wanted one in the Loku case

Andrew Loku, 45, was shot by police in July in 2015 after he refused to drop a hammer he was carrying. (Handout photo)

A coroner's inquest is not like a criminal trial: the verdict is not legally binding, and no one will go to jail or face any consequences as a result of it. Instead, an inquest produces volumes of information about a person's death and makes it public.

That's why the inquest into the death of Andrew Loku, announced on Wednesday, can be considered a victory for the protest group Black Lives Matter: it brings the actions of police in the Loku case into the public's view.

Loku was shot to death by police in July 5, 2015. Loku was wielding a hammer when he was killed, according to the police at the time and the Special Investigations Unit after the shooting.

Black Lives Matter protesters saw Loku's death as a symptom of what they consider a racist police force. Loku, a black man hailing from South Sudan, was in distress when police shot him, and witnesses on the scene said police fired prematurely. Loku had been suffering from mental health issues.

But the SIU — a unit that investigates all cases where civilians are killed or injured in interactions with the police — decided no charges would be laid against the officer or officers who shot the 45-year-old, and no names of the officers involved were released.

So what will a coroner's inquest achieve? And why was it one of the main things the protesters were looking for in the Loku case?

What is an inquest?

The rules of a coroner's inquest are set out in a piece of legislation called the Coroner's Act. Enacted in 1990, it sets out how a coroner's inquest is called and conducted.

First a death must be reported to the office of the chief coroner, which has its own set of criteria. The coroner must be notified if the death happens in certain situations, including at a construction or mining site or while the deceased was in police custody.

Once a death is reported, the coroner must answer five specific questions about the death:

  • Who was the deceased?
  • Where did the death occur?
  • When did the death occur?
  • How did the death occur — the medical cause?
  • By what means did the death occur — natural causes, accident, homicide, suicide or undetermined?

Once the death is reported and the five questions are answered — all criteria met in the Loku case — the inquest can formally proceed. But that generally only happens when the death occurs:

  • While in detention or custody.
  • While restrained on the premises of a psychiatric facility.
  • While restrained in a secure treatment program.

Loku was shot inside a building leased by the Canadian Mental Health Association.

But meeting all those conditions does not automatically mean the coroner will hold an inquest. An inquest can be mandatory by law, as in the case of the death of a young person in custody, or at the discretion of the coroner, as in the Loku case.

Once the actual inquest begins, the coroner decides the scope of the hearing. Generally, the inquest aims to focus public attention on the circumstances of a death.

Demonstrators closed the southbound Allen Expressway, near Eglinton Avenue West to protest against the shooting death of Andrew Loku. (Desmond Cole/Twitter)

The impact of an inquest

When the coroner's inquest is called, it generally means a flood of information surrounding a death will be made public in the course of the proceedings. This, of course, is what drove many to call for the inquest in the Loku case.

Dr. Jim Edwards, a regional supervising coroner for Toronto east, said the inquest was called to "examine the events surrounding Mr. Loku's death." He told the CBC the public protests by Black Lives Matter and others did influence the decision to hold a coroner's inquest.

"It wasn't the only factor, but certainly it was one factor that we took into consideration," Edwards said.

There were others who called for the inquest, such as the former Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee, the African Canadian Legal Fund and the Canadian Mental Health Association's (CMHA) Toronto branch.

"It's important that there be an inquest that we can get to the bottom of what actually happened and how these tragedies can be prevented in the future," Steve Lurie, the executive director of CMHA Toronto told the CBC.

On Wednesday, Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack wondered aloud if the the coroner's inquest was a result of politics. He recently "took exception" to what was said when members of Black Lives Matter spoke with Premier Kathleen Wynne. But Wynne herself denied that. "There is no political control over what the coroner's office does or doesn't do," the premier told the CBC.

For Black Lives Matter, the inquest will accomplish a number of items on its agenda.

First, the identity of Loku's killer or killers will be known. The inquest will compel the officer or officers to give testimony.

Secondly, a video showing at least part of the shooting will become public. So far, that video has not been released.

Not a court case

A coroner's inquest is very different from a court proceeding.

There is no judge at an inquest; the coroner oversees it. The evidence is often a technical overview of the death — coroners in Ontario are medical doctors — and generally will not include any emotional testimony or details that may be found in a criminal court.

There is a five-person jury is made up of members of the community. The jury is not allowed to make any finding that somebody is legally responsible for the death or make any conclusions of law.

There can be no criminal findings — no one can be charged, convicted or sentenced — and there can be no findings that someone should be compensated for the death. There will however be a verdict and, at the conclusion of the inquest, the jury will usually make recommendations on how to prevent future deaths in similar circumstances.

Worthless or worthwhile?

Recommendations made at inquests don't often lead to lasting change, according to Peter Rosenthal, a lawyer who has represented several victims' families.

The latest victim he is advocating for is Ian Pryce, a 30-year-old man who was fatally shot during a standoff with Toronto police in 2013.

Rosenthal says inquests are "somewhere between being worthless or worthwhile" and though they sometimes have good recommendations — they're not always implemented.

"The one that has been most troublesome to me is the recommendation that the officers must if they have time ... try verbal de-escalation before they shoot someone," Rosenthal said.

He said that recommendation has "been made several times yet we see videos like Sammy Yatim where they didn't do it."