Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Michael Bryant: Did the Police Rush to Judgment?

Given the unusual evidence now emerging regarding the deadly, downtown Toronto altercation between former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant and bicycle courier, Darcy Allan Sheppard, it is now abundantly fair to question whether the Toronto Police may have jumped the gun in charging Mr. Bryant before all the evidence was in.

Mr. Bryant, 43, was charged Tuesday with criminal negligence causing death after the incident which occurred Monday evening.

Through some excellent reporting by Toronto Star reporter Cathal Kelly today, we learn that only an hour before the Bloor Street altercation that would leave Mr. Sheppard dead, he was subject of a domestic disturbance complaint by his girlfriend, and in police hands:

Less than an hour before his path would fatally cross that of former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant, Darcy Allan Sheppard was sitting in the back of a police cruiser.

Sheppard had been trying to get into an apartment on George St., south of Allan Gardens. Until a week before, he had lived there with his girlfriend, Misty. Then he had rented a place in the west end.

On Monday night, he showed up at the rundown building near Jarvis and Gerrard Sts. After eight days of sobriety, he had been drinking. Police said they were called. When officers arrived shortly after 9 p.m., they told Sheppard, 33, to leave and not come back.

...By 9:45 p.m., Sheppard was cycling west along the stretch of Bloor St. W. often called the Mink Mile. After passing the intersection of Bloor and Bay Sts., Sheppard collided with Bryant's black convertible Saab.

...Police would later call the accident that brought the two men together a "minor collision." Sheppard appeared unhurt. He angrily slammed his bag down on the hood of Bryant's car.

Despite the evening chill, the Saab's top was down. Sheppard and Bryant began jawing at each other. Bryant's 42-year-old wife, lawyer Susan Abramovitch, was in the passenger seat... According to witnesses, Bryant cut the argument short by pulling away. As he headed westbound on Bloor St., Sheppard chased the car on foot. He grabbed hold of the vehicle on the driver's side. It's not clear if he was trying to get into the car, get at the driver or merely prevent him from leaving.

As there are apparently surveillance videotapes of the incident available, and numerous on-site witnesses to be interviewed, one must wonder whether the speed to charge Mr. Bryant may somehow have been influenced by his political and legal celebrity.

Whether Mr. Bryant used more force than was reasonably necessary to protect himself and his wife from Mr. Sheppard's clearly threatening behaviour may prove to be a question of degree that can ultimately be decided only at a trial.

At first glance, however, there is abundant doubt that Mr. Bryant, faced with an aggressive and belligerent stranger who was relentlessly accosting his open convertible vehicle, acted excessively.

A more likely explanation is that he did what he believed necessary in the instant circumstances - perhaps taking the only action then available to him - to defend himself and his wife from an obvious aggressor who would not let go of his open vehicle.

The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the information now available is that Mr. Sheppard was acting irrationally, violently and with criminal intent at the time of this incident. As CBC News reported today:

Toronto police are investigating whether a cyclist killed in an altercation with a car driven by former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant grabbed the driver or the wheel.

Sgt. Tim Burrows said police have seized a number of video surveillance tapes from the stretch of Bloor Street where the confrontation occurred and are examining them frame-by-frame to confirm the accuracy of witness accounts that have suggested the cyclist may have been trying to get Bryant into a headlock and that the two may have been wrestling for control of the wheel.

If these very basic questions are still being investigated, why in the world has Mr. Bryant already been charged?

The tragic consequences that ensued should not influence or inflame the investigative process.

That this may well have been atypical behaviour for Mr. Sheppard merely compounds the tragedy. As details emerge, it is clear his own circumstances were compelling, and that he was a much cared-for man in his community who struggled valiantly to overcome his own personal issues.

That too, should not cloud any investigation into this matter.

There should be no rush to judgment in these allegations against Michael Bryant.

It appears there may already have been.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

UPDATE:

I'd like to welcome readers from Bike Forums who have clicked through in response to this post at your messageboard:

Regarding Michael Bryant's murder of cyclist Darcy Sheppard, this attorney said it's perfectly acceptable to kill the cyclist when he's holding on for dear life to your car.

Bah.

If I understood the facts to be that Mr. Sheppard was "holding on for dear life," as opposed to the version of facts consistently described in news reports including those excerpted above, that Mr. Sheppard was behaving in a threatening, aggressive manner toward Mr. Bryant as this horrible episode developed, my comments would have been quite different.

If you are aware of credible, contrary evidence, please comment and let me and Wise Law Blog readers know - with links. We are interested.

- Garry J. Wise

Visit our Toronto Law Firm website: www.wiselaw.net

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