James Forcillo case: Crown says events that led to death could have been avoided

Const. James Forcillo could have avoided the sequence of events that led to the shooting death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim in July 2013, the Crown argued Tuesday at the Toronto police officer's sentencing hearing.

Officer involved in Otto Vass case submits letter of support to court on behalf of Forcillo

Const. James Forcillo arrives at court in Toronto to begin his sentencing hearing on Monday, May 16 , 2016. The Toronto police officer has been found guilty of attempted murder in the death of a teen on an empty streetcar. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Const. James Forcillo could have avoided the sequence of events that led to the shooting death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim in July 2013, the Crown argued Tuesday at the Toronto police officer's sentencing hearing.

Crown prosecutor Milan Rupic told the court that de-escalation was perfectly feasible in Forcillo's case because no one had been injured or attacked. And although Yatim was mocking police, Rupic argued that he had uttered no threats, he was contained in the streetcar, there were other officers at the scene and Forcillo had been trained in "non-forceful" techniques.

Rupic argued that Forcillo failed to make use of his training from the moment he got out of the police cruiser after being called to the scene.

The prosecution continued its submissions to Justice Edward Then on Tuesday, after Forcillo's defence team argued last week at the Ontario Superior Court in Toronto that he should be held under house arrest rather than serve time behind bars. 

The Crown has said Forcillo should go to prison for more than five years and a mandatory minimum sentence is reasonable for attempted murder. It opposes a challenge from the defence that the mandatory minimum sentence is unconstitutional in this case.

In January, a jury acquitted Forcillo of second-degree murder, but convicted him of attempted murder for continuing to fire at Yatim after the teen had already fallen mortally wounded to the floor of an empty streetcar in July of 2013.

Forcillo fired two separate volleys — three shots and then six shots — at Yatim, who had consumed ecstasy and was wielding a small knife on the TTC vehicle.

On Wednesday, May 4, the Crown filed written submissions with the court calling for a prison sentence longer than the five-year mandatory minimum for the offence, referring to the shooting of Yatim as "one of the most egregious examples of unjustified violence by a police officer in Canada."

Last week, defence lawyer Lawrence Gridin told the court taking away the availability of a house arrest sentence in Forcillo's case — through the mandatory minimum — is an "overbroad" action not intended to apply to police officers who must carry guns and protect the public.

Gridin said the court needs to consider that police officers are required by the law to carry guns as part of their job 

But Then said a police officer carrying a gun must also be bound by his duties, which include restraint.

"It's not a licence to kill, it's regulated," said Then. "Whether or not it's issued to him by way of his employment ... he has to carry out the terms of his employment in a legal manner."

Letter of support

Meantime, a Toronto police officer involved in another high-profile incident that ended in the death of a man officers were trying to arrest has submitted letter of support to the court on behalf of Forcillo. It's one of 15 letters supporting Forcillo sent to the judge by friends, fellow officers and family of the convicted officer.

In August of 2000, Filippo Bevilacqua was a young constable on patrol with his partner when they answered a call from two other officers who were trying to arrest Otto Vass. 

Otto Vass, 55, died after a violent confrontation with Toronto police officers in August 2000. One of the four officers charged in his death has sent a letter to the judge in support of Forcillo, saying he has become a personal friend of the officer. ((CBC) )

The mentally ill man had just punched one of the officers in the head and they were in a violent struggle with him outside a convenience store. 

Less than a minute after Bevilacqua arrived, the 55-year-old Vass stopped breathing.

All four officers were charged with manslaughter, but later acquitted after a two-month trial. Bevilacqua went on to become a detective, a position he still holds with the Toronto Police Service.

In his letter to the judge, Bevilacqua says he met Forcillo days after the Yatim shooting and has become a personal friend.

"Throughout the past two-and-a-half years James has shown that he is a man with a very strong character. He has faced his nightmare with absolute courage and determination. James is determined to end this ordeal and carry on with his life for the sake of his wife and children," Bevilacqua wrote.

" ... James is the furthest thing from being 'a hothead, a bully and short-tempered,' as he was described by ... Crown Attorney Mr. Milan Rupic," the detective wrote. "Upon his eventual return to work I would not hesitate to work alongside Police Constable James Forcillo."