Toronto

Ontario's top court upholds conviction of Toronto police officer in beating of Dafonte Miller

The Ontario Court of Appeal has rejected appeals filed by both the Crown and defence after a Toronto police officer was convicted of brutally assaulting a young Black man.

Defence had been seeking to overturn Michael Theriault's conviction of assault

Defence lawyers had been seeking to overturn Michael Theriault's conviction for assault after the Toronto police officer was sentenced to nine months in jail in the beating of Dafonte Miller in December 2016. The Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed that appeal on Monday. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The Ontario Court of Appeal has rejected appeals filed by both the Crown and defence after a Toronto police officer was convicted of brutally assaulting a young Black man.

The defence had been seeking to overturn Michael Theriault's conviction of assault after he was sentenced to nine months in jail in the beating of Dafonte Miller in December 2016.

The Crown had appealed the acquittal of Theriault and his brother on charges of aggravated assault and obstruction of justice — but said it would proceed with a new trial only if his assault conviction was overturned.

Ontario's highest court rejected the defence appeal after finding no errors in the trial judge's approach and dismissed the Crown's appeal without considering its merits given its position on a retrial.

Prosecutors alleged during the trial that Theriault and his brother cornered Miller in the early hours of the morning and beat him with a metal pipe, rupturing his eye, among other injuries, after they said they caught him stealing from the family truck.

The case spurred multiple protests against anti-Black racism and police discrimination.

The Toronto Police Service, which continues to employ Theriault, said in a statement on Monday: "The position of the Service remains the same; Constable Theriault continues to be suspended without pay while the internal disciplinary process continues."

Police said no further comment will be made given that further appeals could be made.

Miller, pictured here at the Durham Region Courthouse in Oshawa, Ont., in November 2019. He called Monday's ruling 'a huge step forward.' (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

'Huge step forward,' Miller says

Miller, for his part, told reporters during a virtual news conference on Monday that the ruling is important.

"For me, I feel like the decision today was obviously a huge step forward," he told reporters.

The decision is an acknowledgement that racism plays a role "in police interactions, not only in my situation specifically, but other people who might be going through the same situation as me," Miller said.

"I'm grateful for all the hard work that the Crown and everyone who has been behind me has put into just helping this stuff go forward."

Miller said he's "one step closer to moving on" and it will allow him to put his energy and focus elsewhere.

Leisa Lewis, Miller's mother, said the family can now begin to heal.

"I'm just happy that everything is coming to a close and we can actually start to rebuild and move on and we don't have to really deal with going back and forth with the trial," Lewis said.

Lewis said she has a message for the criminal justice system: "Just do better."

She urged police officers to: "Try to put more humanity into your work. It's not only for a paycheque. You affect people. The things you do affect us deeply."

Julian Falconer, lawyer for the Miller family, said the chiefs of the Toronto Police Service and the Durham Regional Police Service at the time, both now retired, should be held accountable for what happened that night, accusing them of having "covered up" the crime. The assault occurred in Whitby, Ont., east of Toronto and within Durham Region. 

Falconer himself reported the incident to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the province's independent police watchdog, and said it was "inexcusable" that neither Toronto nor Durham police did so.

The SIU investigates all cases involving police that result in the serious injury or death of civilians, as well as allegations that officers have committed sexual assault.

But Falconer said Monday's court decision is a good one.

"This judgment represents an important beginning to establishing some degree of confidence for Dafonte and his family in the justice system and just maybe other members of African-Canadian communities who have no faith in our justice system," Falconer said.

Racial context 'relevant' 

In a 78-page decision, Justice Michael Tulloch said the racial context of the crime is a factor in this case. The other two members of the panel were Justices Gary Trotter and Lois Roberts.

"The Crown did not prove that this was a racially motivated crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, the racial context within which this offence took place was a relevant consideration," Tulloch wrote.

"While often overlooked out of a tendency to distance ourselves from the social ills plaguing our southern neighbour, Canada's long history of anti-Black racism has manifested in the contemporary phenomena of over-policing and disproportionate incidents of violence during interactions between Black people," he continued.

"Systemic and overt racism have long sustained unequal treatment before the law, leading to a crisis of confidence in the administration of justice in some communities. The current moment of reckoning with respect to systemic racism in Canada is long overdue."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

With files from CBC News

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