Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press
Posted on Wed Nov 23, 2022 1:02 PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, November 23, 2022 5:17 PM EST
TORONTO – A Toronto police officer who shot a distraught teenager on an empty streetcar argued Wednesday that an inquest should examine whether the youth may have died by “suicide by officer” – a suggestion the teenager’s family dismissed as painful and harmful.
The inquest into Sammy Yatim’s death was due to begin last week, but was delayed after the attorney for James Forcillo made a motion asking the case to consider the possibility of “suicide by officer,” in which a person acts threateningly to trigger a lethal response from law enforcement.
Forcillo, who was convicted of attempted murder in Yatim’s death, argued through his lawyer that the investigation should look at the teenager’s text messages and web browsing history in the months leading up to the 2013 shooting.
Lawyer Bryan Badali argued that the evidence raises the possibility that Yatim played some role in causing his own death and the inquest should consider the material to better understand the teenager’s state of mind.
“Our reasonable and, in our view, probable inference is that his conduct was intentional and designed to provoke the outcome that followed,” Badali said.
“The cellphone evidence may well assist the jury in interpreting Mr. Yatim’s conduct on the night in question, and the admission of that evidence furthers the ultimate purpose of this investigation.”
The motion is based on several reasons, including that Yatim did not respond to Forcillo’s commands to drop a small knife, that his phone showed he had conducted an online search more than six months before his death on “the easiest way to kill yourself” and that he visited a blog post about “how to commit suicide without feeling pain.”
Lawyers for Yatim’s family asked to have the motion dismissed, arguing it was an abuse of process and blamed the teenager for his own death without evidence to support the suggestion he attempted suicide.
“With this motion, Mr. Forcillo is pointing the finger at Sammy when he has already used the same finger on the trigger of his Glock nine times,” said Jonah Waxman, an attorney for Yatim’s father and sister.
Waxman argued that the request to introduce evidence about Yatim’s state of mind was based on speculative information that has already been rejected by the courts. In an appeal of his attempted murder conviction, which was dismissed, Forcillo had argued that a High Court judge was wrong to exclude mobile phone and expert evidence about the possibility of a policeman’s suicide during the trial.
“The Yatim family has suffered enough and they are still suffering,” said Waxman, who asked that the motion be “dismissed with prejudice.”
“The very act of making this suggestion was distasteful. It has further delayed the investigation and caused unnecessary suffering to the entire family.”
Asha James, lawyer for Yatim’s mother Sahar Bahadi, said the motion turns the investigation into a trial against the teenager.
“I’m sure if we searched the phones of a lot of 18-year-olds, we’d find that a lot of them are unhappy, they’ve got a lot of things going on in their lives that might make them sad or unhappy,” James said. “It doesn’t mean they’re depressed and suicidal.”
Anita Szigeti, an attorney representing the Empowerment Council, which has expertise in police interactions with people in crisis, also opposed the proposal, calling it “outrageous.”
There is the potential for a “devastating effect” on people with mental health problems, speech difficulties and intellectual disabilities whose failure to respond to police is seen as a provocation that justifies the use of deadly force, Szigeti said.
A lawyer for the Toronto Police Services Board said the evidence would unnecessarily cast Yatim in a negative light, while a lawyer for the force’s police chief said the motion’s requests are outside the scope of the inquiry.
Meanwhile, lawyer Shanna Ferrone, representing the coroner’s office, argued that cell phone evidence suggests things had started to look up for Yatim in the weeks before his death, when texts showed he had found a shared home in Toronto to live in after that his father kicked him out.
Forcillo fired two separate volleys at Yatim as the 18-year-old stood alone holding a small knife on an empty tram in July 2013.
The shooting sparked a wave of public outrage and protests after cellphone footage of what happened was posted online.
In 2016, a jury acquitted Forcillo of the more serious charge of second-degree murder in connection with the first round of gunfire — which, the court heard, killed the teenager — but the officer was convicted of attempted murder in connection with the second volley, which was fired while Yatim was lying on his back .
Forcillo was also later convicted of perjury for claiming to be living with his ex-wife while out on bail awaiting his appeal, when he had actually moved in with his new fiancé. He was sentenced to six and a half years behind bars and was granted full parole in 2020.
The inquest will examine the circumstances surrounding Yatim’s death and may result in recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths in the future.
Inquest chairman David Cameron expressed disappointment that the inquiry was “being led astray” by Forcillo’s proposal and said he wanted a decision on it before the end of the year. New dates for the inquest will be announced after the decision.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on November 23, 2022.