Toronto

Toronto police officer found guilty of assault, brother not guilty, in Dafonte Miller beating case

A Toronto police officer has been found guilty of assault in the beating of a young Black man more than three years ago, while his brother has been acquitted of all charges.

Michael Theriault convicted of assault, but acquitted of aggravated assault, obstruction of justice

Dafonte Miller, shown prior to the beating of Dec. 28, 2016, and after. (Submitted by Leisa Lewis)

A Toronto police officer has been found guilty of assault in the beating of a young Black man more than three years ago, while his brother has been acquitted of all charges.

Michael Theriault was convicted of assault on Friday, but found not guilty of aggravated assault or obstruction of justice in relation to the Dec. 28, 2016, incident involving Dafonte Miller, which left him blinded in one eye.

The officer's brother, Christian Theriault, was acquitted of aggravated assault and obstruction of justice.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca said the case, and others like it, "raise significant issues involving race and policing that should be further examined."

But he said his task was not to conduct a public inquiry on race and policing, or to deliver the decision sought by the public — it was to determine the case based on the evidence.

While a decision like this would usually come in court, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic led to the hearing being broadcast live on YouTube, with over 19,000 viewers tuning in.

Justice Joseph Di Luca, left, delivers his judgment in the trial of Michael Theriault, centre, and his younger brother Christian Theriault, right, in a video conference on Friday. (Pam Davies/CBC)

Miller, family speak out

After the judge's decision, Miller, now 22, and his mother held a news conference to show appreciation for the community that supported them.

"It's meant a lot to me in these last few years," he said. "It's helped me go forward."

Miller recalls the night of the incident and said, "We've come a long way."

"Now, we're in a situation where an officer has been held accountable to some extent," adding that he wants to continue to raise awareness for those who are in his position but may not have the resources and support he has had.

"There's a lot of people who are in my position who don't get the same backing that I got and don't get to have their day to really have any vindication for what they're going through."

WATCH | Miller speaks after decision:

'I would like to show appreciation for the community supporting me ... It's helped me go forward. We've come a long way,' Dafonte Miller said at a press conference with his lawyers on Friday.  1:08

Michael Theriault is currently suspended with pay, Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray said in an email before the verdict was handed down. 

"The internal disciplinary process is held until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings," she wrote.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders spoke to the media about the judge's decision on Friday afternoon.

Police chief staying neutral going forward

He said the police service will continue to investigate as Michael Theriault remains suspended.

When asked if the officer will be able to work on the force again, Saunders said: "I won't answer to that."

"If I start saying things with respect to, what outcomes or expectations that I believe, then it does not provide fair opportunity for the tribunal process."

"By me staying neutral, it provides a better opportunity for fair and impartial decisions."

Community members gather in front of the Durham Regional Courthouse, in Oshawa, Ont., holding signs that read "Convict Theriault brothers" and "Arrest the cops!" (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Saunders, however, said he recognizes the case is going to affect the public's trust of police.

"As chief, I can't deny that this matter will have an increased strain between police and the community, specifically the Black community, especially those with lived experiences of discrimination in the justice system or by the police," he said.

Mike McCormack, the president of the Toronto Police Association, would not comment on the decision saying "the matter is still before the court pending sentence."

Vastly different versions

Michael Theriault, who was off duty that night in 2016, and his younger brother, Christian, both had pleaded not guilty, telling the court Miller attacked them that night and they were defending themselves, putting forth a case of self-defence.

The Crown contended there was no justification for the beating Miller suffered that night.

Di Luca called the self-defence justification "razor thin" during his ruling and said, "They were probably beating on Mr. Miller."

Miller, who was 19 at the time of the incident, said he was walking down a residential street in the early morning hours in Whitby, Ont. — more than 50 kilometres east of Toronto — with two friends. He testified that the brothers, who were at their father's house, came outside and questioned them. He told the court he ran and the Theriaults chased him, catching up to him between two houses.

He said they beat him — punching, kicking and hitting him with an object. He made his way to the front of a home and banged on the door for help, but the beating continued.

Homeowner James Silverthorn, a district chief with Toronto Fire Services, was a Crown witness. He said he woke up even before the banging on the door to the sounds of screaming.

He looked through his side window and saw two men beating another man.

"It was continuous. It was very hard," he told the court.

He said later, when the men had moved to the front of his house, he saw one man holding an object, stabbing down with it, to keep the man on the ground from getting up.

A long metal pole with blood on it was found at the scene.

Theriault, left, and his brother were acquitted of charges of aggravated assault and obstruction of justice. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

The Theriault brothers told the court they caught Miller and one of his friends breaking into their parents' vehicle and that they were trying to apprehend him.

They testified that once they caught up to him, Miller was the one with a pipe and that he was hitting them.

Di Luca called Michael Theriault's failure to identify himself as a police officer until much later into the incident "inconceivable" and "telling."

"To be blunt," Di Luca said, "I would have expected the first thing out of Michael Theriault's mouth as he was chasing Mr. Miller while wearing only socks would have been "Stop... you are under arrest... I'm a police officer," or words to that effect."

"On the whole, I am satisfied that Michael Theriault's initial intent was not to conduct an arrest. It was likely to capture Mr. Miler and assault him."

Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca, bottom centre, reads his decision via video conference, with both counsels, and the Theriault brothers, middle right, in attendance. (Pam Davies)

Michael Theriault admitted in court that he punched Miller repeatedly, as hard as he could, trying to disarm him. He said he and his brother feared for their lives.

In written closing submissions, the defence wrote: "This case is not about race." 

The narratives put forward by Miller and his lawyer "bear no resemblance to what actually happened," their submission reads. 

This photo of Miller after the beating was submitted as evidence. (Special Investigations Unit)

The defence lawyers also argued Miller lied in court when he denied breaking into cars that night.

Prosecutors said even if Miller was breaking into cars, the severe beating that caused him to lose his left eye was not justified.

The case has drawn attention to issues of anti-Black racism and police brutality, spurring protests in solidarity with Miller and his family.

The demonstrators, sporting T-shirts that read "Justice for Dafonte" gathered outside the Oshawa Ont., courthouse even though the hearing did not take place there.

Members of the Durham Black Accountability Coalition hold a rally outside the Oshawa, Ont., courthouse in support of Miller and his family. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Demonstrators hold up a sign that reads "Justice for Dafonte" outside an Oshawa Ont. courthouse on Friday, as a judge delivers his decision on the trial of Michael and Christian Theriault. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

About the Author

Jessica Cheung is a writer and producer at CBC News Toronto. Have a news tip? Email jessica.cheung@cbc.ca

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp and the Canadian Press

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