Toronto

Ontario's chief pathologist determines what killed Soleiman Faqiri — 5 years after he died behind bars

Five years after Soleiman Faqiri died on the floor of an Ontario jail — shackled, pepper-sprayed and face down with his head covered — the province's chief forensic pathologist has determined what killed him. Faqiri's family says they're hopeful the report means criminal charges will be brought against the guards involved in his death.

Case now referred back to provincial police for possible criminal charges, lawyers say

Soleiman Faqiri, or 'Soli' as his family knew him, was once a straight-A student and captain of his high school football team. But he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 18 after a car accident. The province's chief forensic pathologist released a report Tuesday determining the cause of Faqiri's 2016 death in an Ontario jail. (Submitted by Yusuf Faqiri)

Five years after Soleiman Faqiri died on the floor of an Ontario jail — shackled, pepper-sprayed and face down with his head covered — the province's chief forensic pathologist has determined just what killed him.

It's the answer to a question his family has been asking for years, only to be told again and again there was no way of knowing how the 30-year-old with schizophrenia died behind bars as he awaited transfer to a medical facility.

Until now.

Faqiri's official cause of death, as found by Dr. Michael Pollanen: "Prone position restraint and musculocutaneous injuries sustained during struggle, exertion and pepper spray exposure" in a person with an enlarged heart and worsening schizophrenia.

In other words, Faqiri's death was the result of being held face down on his stomach and the injuries he suffered while being physically restrained and repeatedly struck by a group of at least six guards at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont., in 2016.

"Multiple musculocutaneous injuries were present due to blunt trauma caused by some combination of correctional officers striking Soleiman Faqiri, or his body hitting the ground or stationary objects during a violent struggle with the correctional officers," Pollanen said in a peer-reviewed forensic pathology review report dated Aug. 5.

"None of the injuries were individually fatal," Pollanen said in the report. "But, in combination, the injuries were a significant contributing factor in death."

Case referred back to provincial police, lawyers say

It's a grim conclusion but one his family can find some measure of peace in after years of anguish over a truth they've believed in all along.

"At the end of the day, is there relief? Yes and no. Soli is gone, he's not coming back and a part of my family died that day," Faqiri's brother, Yusuf, told CBC News. "But what this report does effectively is what should have been done five years ago."

Their one hope now is for criminal charges against the guards involved in Faqiri's death and for his case to serve as an example so that no family has to lose a loved one with mental illness this way again.

As a result of the chief pathologist's report, the case has been referred back to the Ontario Provincial Police, meaning criminal charges could possibly be back on the table, the family's lawyers say.

Two previous criminal investigations — by the Kawartha Lakes Police Service and the OPP, respectively — resulted in no charges being laid against any of the guards involved.

Faqiri's family has been asking for years what killed their beloved Soli, only to be told there was no way to know how the 30-year-old had died behind bars. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

'There is no mystery remaining'

"We now know that Soleiman Faqiri was killed with a lethal combination of excessive force," said Edward Marrocco, one of the lawyers representing the family. 

"There is no justification for what was done to him. There is no training that authorizes correctional officers to use this kind of violence. Pollanen has drawn a direct connection between the brutality Soleiman endured from the guards and the death of his body. There is no mystery remaining in the killing of Soleiman Faqiri."

Faqiri — or "Soli," as his family knew him — had been a straight-A student and captain of his high school football team. But his life took a turn when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 18 after a car accident. Over the years, he was repeatedly taken into custody under the province's Mental Health Act, but had no criminal record. 

At the end of the day, is there relief? Yes and no. Soli is gone, he's not coming back and a part of my family died that day. But what this report does effectively is what should have been done five years ago.- Yusuf Faqiri

Pollanen's finding comes just months after the lead pathologist announced a review into Faqiri's death.

According to the family's lawyers, it also replaces the finding of the original 2017 forensic pathology report by Dr. Magdaleni Bellis, which found Faqiri's cause of death could not be determined — or was "unascertained."

The move to review the case followed less than a year after court documents emerged suggesting jail guards violated their use-of-force policies when they restrained Faqiri.

In a formal examination provided under oath, Dawn Roselle, one of two jail managers fired after Faqiri's death, said she would never have knowingly combined the use of pepper-spray and a spit hood with restraining someone on their stomach.

The province has claimed in court documents that Roselle and another manager fired after Faqiri's death did not act "in the course and scope of their duties." Their lawyer previously told CBC News his clients were being "scapegoated" by the province. 

It also comes more than two years after The Fifth Estate spoke exclusively with an inmate whose cell was directly across from Faqiri's segregation unit, and whose eyewitness account never factored into the original post-mortem report. 

WATCH | Former inmate John Thibeault speaks out about witnessing Faqiri's death:

A former inmate speaks out about a day that haunts him

3 years ago
0:56
John Thibeault says he saw jail guards beat Soleiman Faqiri 0:56

'We call on you to do your job'

In his report, Pollanen confirms he took into account a statement from an inmate along with those of correctional officers, examined autopsy and lab results, medical history, video footage from inside the jail, the spit hood covering Faqiri in his final moments and the cell where Faqiri took his final breath. 

Pollanen does note that the science behind how someone might die in a face-down position is "not entirely settled in forensic medicine," and that other pathologists could hold different opinions on how to frame the "bottom line" cause of his death.

Still, with the long-awaited revelation of cause of death, Faqiri's family now holds out hope that someone will be held accountable and are cautiously optimistic that the OPP will lay charges.

"To the Ontario Provincial Police — we call on you to do your job," said Yusuf. "Prove to us that the system doesn't protect correctional officers when they break the law."

A label on the packaging of the particular spit hood used on Faqiri before his death states, 'Warning: Improper use of TranZport Hood can cause injury or death,' (Court documents)

In a statement to CBC News, OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt confirmed the force has received the new report and is currently reviewing it, but could not comment on any specifics "to preserve the integrity of any ensuing court processes."

"The OPP sincerely sympathize with the Faqiri family as they have suffered great personal loss."

Lawyer, justice critic call for accountability

Lawyer Clayton Ruby, who has spent decades working in the criminal justice system, told CBC News the report by the province's chief pathologist demands accountability — particularly as it involves jail guards who have a legal obligation to safeguard an inmate's well-being. 

Still, he says he has no confidence in the OPP to bring charges against those involved. 

Soleiman Faqiri died on the floor of an Ontario jail — shackled, pepper-sprayed and face down with his head covered while waiting transfer to a hospital. His family says the confirmation is not enough. 7:55

"We don't accept when a group of men attacks someone who is helpless and kills them that they get to say, 'I didn't strike the final blow.' In fact they would all be participating and they would all be charged … but there seems to be a special rule for police and jail guards," he said. 

"And that's a corrupt, unacceptable use of a justice system."

Ontario's New Democratic Party justice critic Gurratan Singh issued a statement about the report, calling it "a step forward in the quest for justice, but true justice would be for Soleiman to be alive today."

"In light of this report, the death of Soleiman Faqiri must be re-investigated and anyone found responsible must be held accountable," he said. "Ontarians also deserve systemic change in the criminal justice system to ensure that people experiencing mental illness get help, not violence."

Union 'welcomes review' of ministry policies

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General said it could not comment on the report. 

"As this matter remains before the court and there is a pending coroner's inquest it would not appropriate for the ministry to provide public comment," said Brent Ross.

In a statement to CBC News, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) that represents Ontario correctional officers, said the report is "long overdue" and that it "welcomes the review of the policies and procedures of the ministry."

"Correctional officers in Ontario are professionals, called upon to handle difficult, often dangerous situations often without proper supports on a daily basis, particularly as the number of inmates with mental illness grows," the union said.

It noted it would "vigorously support its members through any further investigations, and will continue to call on the Ministry to focus solutions to the root causes of violence in our correctional system."

"The death of Mr. Faqiri is an absolute tragedy, and one that need never have happened," the statement said. 

A $14.3-million lawsuit filed by the family against the ministry and seven individual jail staff members remains before the courts.

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp

now